Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Most Influential Constitution Convention Delegate: John Rutledge

John Rutledge represented South Carolina as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He may not have had the influence of a Madison over the overall document, but Rutledge was important because he represented the slave South and was able to secure compromises that would protect the institution of slavery.

Rutledge was put in charge of the Committee on Detail and he led four other delegates while the rest of the delegate broke for an eleven-day recess. The goal of the Committee was to “properly dress” the “principles and outlines of a system” of government that was already agreed to by the delegates. In other words, it was the Committee’s responsibility to write the first draft of the Constitution. However, Rutledge would use the committee to implement new resolutions and ideas that were never discussed and agreed upon by the convention: especially on slavery. The committee was to take all agreed to resolutions and formulate a plan of government. But Rutledge saw an opportunity and seized on it.

Also on the committee were Nathaniel Gorman of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia. Four of these men were distinguished lawyers, Randolph would be Attorney General and Wilson, Ellsworth and Rutledge would serve on the Supreme Court. Wilson and Rutledge already crafted the three-fifths compromise earlier in the convention. The three-fifths compromise allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person for allocating representatives for the House of Representatives and also for calculating direct state taxes.

Randolph was indecisive so it is easy to see how the slave owner could be influenced by Rutledge. Wilson was willing to compromise over slavery as his three-fifths proposal with Rutledge demonstrated earlier in the convention. Ellsworth was an anti-slavery delegate, but he helped align a small-states and slave-states compact at the convention so small states could gain equal representation in the Senate by supporting passage of the three-fifths compromise. Ellsworth would argue slavery is an issue to be decided by the States and it should be of no concern to the National government. Ellsworth wrongly believed that morality would eventually rule the day and the institution of slavery would eventually die. Ellsworth conceded if the issue over slavery was a moral one then all slaves should be free, but that was not what was being contested at the convention.

The Committee defined eighteen enumerated Powers for Congress. Wilson, responsible for the final committee draft and a proponent for a strong national government did not favor limiting Congress to enumerated powers so he drafted the “necessary and proper” clause. Wilson also included eight limits on State governments. Wilson also rewrote the Supremacy clause to make sure Congress and the Courts had some power over the States. Wilson was instrumental to define federalism in how State governments and the National government would be reconciled in the Constitution: both were sovereign, but the national government can trump state governments.

The committee also introduced the resolution that slave trade could continue perpetually without any import tax on slaves. Eventually the convention agreed to a twenty-year limit with a maximum ten-dollar tax per slave. This was important because it allowed another 170,000 slaves to be imported from Africa to grow the institution before President Jefferson ended the practice after the twenty-year moratorium ended. The Rutledge committee also introduced the navigation acts (interstate and foreign trade) which declared all legislation on the subject must be approved by a two-thirds majority in Congress. This was done to protect the South from high freight costs. In a compromise to end the two-thirds majority the South garnered its final slave provision: the fugitive slave clause. Rutledge had succeeded in obtaining three key slave protections: the three-fifth clause, the slave import clause, and the fugitive slave clause without even mentioning the word “slavery” in the text. The North felt they did well by compromising on these issues, but the fact remains that Rutledge “hijacked” the Constitution. The North compromised over issues that were never agreed to by the full convention.

The three-fifths clause was the key provision. With the extra 10 to 30 seats the South would garner over the next 50 years, it changed history: Ten of the first fifteen presidents were slaver owners (for instance, John Adams would have defeated Jefferson in 1800 if not for the extra Southern electors); nineteen of the first thirty-four Supreme Court Justices were slave owners; and Southerners held the Speaker of the House position 35 of the first 50 years. This clause wielded the South with power to sustain the practice of slavery. Since the South controlled Congress, they always failed to pass a direct State tax that was to offset their Representative gains.

John Rutledge’s coup d’├ętat at the National Convention was slick because he accomplished his goals single handedly. He sided with small states and then hijacked the first draft of the Constitution. The rogue Rutledge introduced new provisions into the Constitution that were never discussed or approved by the states or delegates. He then compromised on these issues to garner even more power for the slave wielding South.

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