Three-Fifths for Kansas-Nebraska

James Tallmadge, Jr.

James Tallmadge, Jr.

The Southern radicals had their dream come true; they had at last slain the Missouri Compromise. If more moderate men worried that in doing so they aroused the North and united it as never before against slavery, they would just have to live with those worries. If the more passionate antislavery men secretly wondered in their hearts of chilly Kansas or Nebraska would ever suit slavery, they had similar doubts about its future in chilly Virginia and everywhere else outside the Cotton Kingdom. The South, the minority section, enforced its will on the majority through its disproportionate influence on the national party, the Democracy. It did so not over a fringe issue, or even one that Northern voters cared about but which competed with other similarly important issues. Instead, F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon pushed Stephen Douglas so far that the final version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act struck at the core of Northerner’s understanding of their future and the nature of the Union. How could they believe that the republic rested on the self-determination of white men when its machinery so clearly  sold away the future they held dear in a bargain they saw as clearly corrupt?

The House vote bears some revisiting. William W. Freehling breaks it down helpfully in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854:

The familiar majority then secured the latest and most notorious pro-southern law. Slaveholding states stood 71-11 for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and Northern Democrats voted 42-39 with the South. As usual, Lower North Democrats voted strongest the southern way, 28-17. Upper North Democrats voted 22-14 against Kansas-Nebraska, as did Northern Whigs-Freesoilers-Nativists, by a 50-0 count. In all, the free labor states opposed Douglas, 89-42. The Kansas-Nebraska bill passed, 113-100, even though two-thirds of the majority section voted nay, because even-eighths of the minority section and half the Northern Democrats voted aye.

All of that for thirteen votes. But for those thirteen, the South would have failed. The obvious sectional alignments, and divergences, tell a great deal of this story. Look how strongly the North opposed the vote, even before the anti-Nebraska majorities could purge their traitorous representatives. But another story hides in that thirteen vote margin.

Way back in 1783, under the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress considered an amendment that would change how the Confederation assessed states for their taxes. The previous system considered the value of real estate and the new one would count population. That count would include slaves, which the South saw as double taxation. They would pay for their property, including slaves, and then also their population, including slaves. The amendment failed, but the idea came up again at the Philadelphia convention. By then the issue had changed to representation and the South very much wanted its slaves counted. The North, by contrast, pointed out that slaves only seemed to count as people when it granted it and advantage to slaveholders. The North, of course, had the same scruples reversed: slaves counted as people in order to bestow liabilities on others, but not to grant them advantages.

The infamous solution that the convention reached counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation and taxes levied on the states. The South could have more representatives in exchange for larger tax bills. This often gets described, with some justice, as the framers viewing slaves as only 3/5 human. But in one of history’s complexities, the 3/5 compromise, in all its infamy, also served as a very moderate anti-slavery measure. The slave power of the day wanted slaves to count as full people, greatly inflating the representation of slaveholding states.

The South had to settle for less, but its narrow advantage had a decisive role in American history. The seats conveyed by the three-fifths of the slave population denied John Adams a second term and put Thomas Jefferson into the White House in 1800. After him came two terms each of Madison and Monroe. Except for the Adams interregnum, a slaveholding Virginian aristocrat held the Presidency from April 30, 1789 (Congress met to count Washington’s electoral votes late and so delayed the beginning of his term by almost two months.) until March 4, 1825. That same narrow edge denied James Tallmadge, Jr.’s attempt to set Missouri on a path to freedom in 1820 and so required the Missouri Compromise. Those extra seats gave the Indian Removal Act its majority. In 1854, one man, one vote white egalitarianism would have given the South nineteen fewer seats in the House, ensuring the failure of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The South’s extra seats had long been a sore point for Northerners. Why should slavery receive extra representation? The men in those seats did not represent the interests of the slaves, but rather their owners. Since Southerners could buy slaves, they could literally buy themselves extra votes in Congress. Once upon a time, the extra tax liability meant that at least the South paid for that privilege, but after 1800 Washington gave up collecting direct taxes from the states and made its revenues out of tariffs and land sales. Thus Tallmadge proposed setting Missouri on a road to freedom in 1820. If the North could not undo the South’s advantage, it could at least limit that advantage to as few states as possible and strike a blow against slavery as a bonus. But the South united against him just as it united for Douglas’ repeal of its own past work in 1854.

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