Between the years 1765 and 1787, America had gone from British Colonies protesting against the British Parliament’s Stamp Act, to an independent Nation. During the Revolutionary War, Colonists wrote the Articles of Confederation, which acted as a set of rules and organized the government. Although the Articles of Confederation gave structure to the American government, it had ultimately set up America for failure as a thriving Nation.
The states were given too much power and economic freedom in the Articles of Confederation, and were beginning to localize and feud with neighboring states, and the government had no independent source of income. Because America was no longer at War against Great Britain, the sense of equality in governmental power the Articles of Confederation brought to the states was no longer needed. What America needed was a new constitution, better fit for the independent Nation America had spent the past decade fighting for.
In order to create a new and improved constitution, fifty-five Delegates from each state (except Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia to debate and then write what is now known as America’s Constitution. The Delegates’ varied experiences during the Revolutionary War and the four years following, under the Articles of Confederation, caused the Delegates’ opinions and fears to differ. This contrast of beliefs between the Northern state delegates, and the Southern state delegates founded the heated debates around representation in Congress.
Under the Articles of Confederation,“each state [would] have one vote”(23) in congress. This Article was written to ensure that the states would feel that they had complete and equal control over the government. The writers of the Articles of Confederation feared a government similar to that of the British parliament would arise if the states and people living in them were not given any say in the government. This fear of tyranny caused America to go from “winning independence to overseeing an independent Nation”(Berkin,19).
During the Constitutional Convention, the Delegates argued over how to properly represent the people in Congress so that everyone could have their say, while at the same time, prevent tyranny and localization of the states. On June 11, 1787, the idea of proportional representation in senate was put on the table for discussion. James Wilson of Virginia argued that equal representation “[enabled] the minority to control on all cases whatsoever, the sentiments and interests of the majority”(June 30, 1787).
Wilson believed the less populated states were given too much power under the Articles of Confederation to make decisions regarding the whole country. Mr. Elseworth, a delegate of the small state of Connecticut, disagrees with Wilson’s beliefs, saying that “no instance of a Confederacy has existed in which an equality of voices has not been exercised by the members of it”(June 30, 1787). Elseworth believes that having an equal vote in Congress prevents the more populated states from abusing their governmental power.
He then goes on to state that they “are razing the foundations of the building, when [they] need only repair the roof”(June 30, 1787). Because Connecticut is a smaller, less populated state, it makes sense that Elseworth would prefer to keep the new Constitution as close to the Articles of Confederation as possible. Once resolved that proportional representation would be in affect in the senate, the delegates then had to come to an agreement as to what would determine the number of representatives in congress per state.
America declared independence from Great Britain because the people were not being given representation. Colonists wanted to feel like they had a say in what the government could and couldn’t do with their property. During the Constitutional Convention, issues among the topic of who or what was to be counted towards a state’s number of representatives in Congress were discussed with great passion.
Earlier in the Constitutional Convention, the southern state delegates of South Carolina believed that “proportion of suffrage in the first branch [should] be according to the quotas of contribution,”(June 11, 1787) meaning they wanted a state’s wealth to determine the number of representatives in Congress. South Carolina was a big exporting and agricultural state at the time, so by proposing the number of representatives per state in Congress be based off the state’s wealth, South Carolina would be giving themselves more power in Congress than the Northern states who didn’t grow as many crops, but instead ran major ports.
When South Carolina’s proposition of representation based on wealth wasn’t passed, the idea of representation based on population numbers was left to be discussed. The debates on who should be counted towards the representation in Congress showed how the delegates’ beliefs varied, causing tension between the delegates. Mr. Butler of South Carolina believed “the labour of a slave in South Carolina was as productive & valuable as that of a freeman in Massachusetts,”(July 11, 1787) and should therefore be counted towards the population number.
Butler argued that because the wealth coming from the states supplied protection to the Nation, and because the Southern state’s agricultural exports produced by the work of slaves supplied a majority of the Nation’s wealth, slaves deserved to be represented just as much as a freeman. He then continued to remind the delegate’s that America was created off of the idea of protection over one’s property. When the British imposed the Stamp Act on the colonies, colonists lost all protection from British Parliament over their property.
Butler didn’t understand why slaves, who were thought of at the time as property, shouldn’t be allowed equal representation when they were the ones supplying the money for the protection of property, the principle that created America and founded the government. Mr. Mason of Virginia agreed with Mr. Butler that slaves are important to the Nation’s wealth, but disagreed that they are equal to a freeman. Mr. Wilson of Pennsylvania did not understand how the Southern delegates could think of their slaves as property and then think it was fair that they be counted towards the population number of a state.
Mr. Patterson of New Jersey “could regard slaves in no light but as property,”(July 9, 1787) and believed that because slaves didn’t have the right to vote, they didn’t deserve to be represented at all in Congress. Even though Southern states also thought of slaves as property, many of the Southern states’ population percentages mostly consisted of slaves, meaning if slaves were to be counted as population, the Southern states would be given more representatives in Congress, and therefore more power.
Throughout the Constitutional Convention, it is obvious that the Northern and Southern state delegates have a vast contrast in opinions. The debates around the type of representation in congress uncovered the hidden fear of tyranny among the states, more so the smaller states of the North. The disputes around who should be represented in Congress showed how different the states priorities were. While the South wanted more representation in Congress, the North was beginning to question whether the slaves should be thought of as men or property.
Although the Southern and Northern delegates had very different beliefs, one feeling shared commonly throughout all of them was that the independence they gained from winning the Revolutionary War was more valuable then any individual state value, and would always act as the glue of the Nation in times of feuding. They knew that the new Constitution would need to secure the rights fought for during the Revolutionary War, while also ensuring the states that their own rights wouldn’t be completely ignored.