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Hallo again to all.

On a hot day in mid July, 1787, in Philadelphia, USA, the Constitutional Convention was busy trying to hammer out a compromise between two intractable points of view. The goal of the entire exercise -- the reason for holding the Constitutional Convention -- was to create a country, the 'United States'. That required combining the autonomous states that were hoping to unite themselves.

The thorny issue was whether or not slaves were people. This was not a theological discussion, about whether or not a slave was entirely human. The disagreement was really about power. The Convention was creating a structure for a representative democracy, in which states having more people would get more of a vote than states having fewer people. Whether or not slaves were people wasn't about their soul, it was about their ability to enable another member of the House of Representatives.

Delegates to that convention were careful not to use the words 'slave' or 'slavery'. The resulting document, in Article I, Section 2, reads:

Clause 3: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

It is instructive to look not just at the finished product--the US Constitution--but at the process by which it was created. There were no cameras or recording machines; the delegates transcribed the discussion according to the customs of the era. (The debates of 12 July 1787 were transcribed by James Madison.)

We note that neither the Constitution nor the transcribed minutes use the words 'slave' or 'slavery', referring instead to blacks, whites, and Negroes. Perhaps this was purely pragmatic, avoiding the need to define slavery in the constitution. Reading James Madison's minutes of the debate, one can get a vague sense of what it was like by looking at who took which position. If the discussion had focused on ethical issues, we would expect the southern states (which permitted slavery) to argue that slaves were not people. Likewise we would expect the 'eastern' states (which condemned slavery) to take the view that of course slaves are people.

But lo! Delegates from the non-slave states argued that blacks should not be counted as people and delegates from slave states argued that blacks should be counted as people. This argument, seemingly about morality, about whether slaves were people, was really about power, about whether or not slaves could be counted towards greater voting power in Congress. Each side argued the opposite of what it actually believed, in order to maximize its power in the government being created.

To modern eyes this 'three-fifths compromise' seems preposterous. But odious as it was, it worked; it allowed the creation of a country. Was it worth the price? The three-fifths rule is long gone, removed by the 14th and 16th amendments to the US Constitution. Most citizens of the United States will tell you that they think blacks are actual people, and the majority of them actually mean it. It took two more centuries, but that issue has more or less been resolved.

This snippet of history offers a lesson for us Anglicans, but we aren't sure everyone will agree on just what that lesson might be. Perhaps if three-fifths of us agree, we can accomplish something that matters?

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 19 September 2004

A thin blue line
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