Getting to Union

Navigating Differences in the Constitutional Convention

Part III. Creating Space to Address Issues Built Trust Among the Delegates.
This Made it Possible to Work Through Big Problems Together.

Part III. Step 2. Slavery and Representation


Early in the Convention, Madison and Hamilton had attempted to resolve the question of whether states with large numbers of slaves would receive a political advantage in the Union or not. Resolving this issue at that time proved premature, and in fact this would continue to be a point of contention throughout the Convention.  Slave-holding states worried about a Union in which they would be outvoted and over-taxed; states less dependent on slavery did not want to see too much power given to states with large numbers of slaves.

The delegates had decided that representation in the lower house of the national legislature would be based on population. This raised the question of how to count enslaved persons in the population. If enslaved persons were counted in the population, it meant that Southern States would have more power in Congress. As a result, the Southern States wanted to count enslaved persons while the New England and Middle States did not want to count them.

Some delegates did express moral outrage on the question of slavery. However, at no point did any member of the Convention think that it was the Convention’s task to debate the morality of slavery. It was clear to all the delegates that limitations to slavery would likely prevent the Southern States from joining the Union. 

If this issue had been forced on the first day, the Convention would have broken up.  But because the Convention had other issues to discuss, it was able to postpone discussion of this most dangerous of issues and move on to agree to other things, without the Convention falling apart.

Read Transcript of Video Collapse

Prepare for Class Discussion

On your own paper, respond to the question below.

  1. Why did the Southern States want to count all slaves in the population count?
  2. Why did the New England and Middle States not want to count slaves in the population count?
  3. In your opinion, why might the Convention fall apart if the question of balance of power for slave states was forced on the first day of the Convention?



Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.