The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787/Volume 3/Appendix A/CCLXXX

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ⅭⅭⅬⅩⅩⅩ. Debate in the House of Representatives.[1]

June 16–20, 1798.

Mr. B[aldwin]. thought the 9th section, forbidding Congress to prohibit the migration, &c., was directly opposed to the principle of this bill. He recollected very well that when the 9th section of the Constitution was under consideration in the Convention, the delegates from some of the Southern States insisted that the prohibition of the introduction of slaves should be left to the State Governments; it was found expedient to make this provision in the Constitution; there was an objection to the use of the word slaves, as Congress by none of their acts had ever acknowledged the existence of such a condition. It was at length settled on the words as they now stand, ‘that the migration or importation of such persons as the several States shall think proper to admit, should not be prohibited till the year 1808.’ It was observed by some gentlemen present that

this expression would extend to other persons besides slaves,[2] which was not denied, but this did not produce any alteration of it. …

Mr. Dayton (the Speaker) commenced his observations with declaring that he should not have risen on this occasion, if no allusion had been made to the proceedings in the Federal Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States, or if the representation which was given of what passed in that body, had been a perfectly correct and candid one. He expressed his surprise at what had fallen from the gentleman from Georgia (Mr. Baldwin) relatively to that part of the Constitution, which had been selected as the text of opposition to the bill under consideration, viz: ‘The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by Congress, prior to the year 1808.’ He could only ascribe either to absolute forgetfulness, or to wilful misrepresentation, the assertion of the member from Georgia, that it was understood and intended by the General Convention that the article in question should extend to the importation or introduction of citizens from foreign countries. As that gentleman and himself were the only two members of the House of Representatives who had the honor of a seat in that body, he deemed it his indispensable duty to correct the misstatement that had thus been made. He did not therefore, hesitate to say, in direct contradiction to this novel construction of the article (made as it would seem to suit the particular purposes of the opponents of the Alien bill) that the proposition itself was originally drawn up and moved in the Convention, by the deputies from South Carolina, for the express purpose of preventing Congress from interfering with the introduction of slaves into the United States, within the time specified. He recollected also, that in the discussion of its merits, no question arose, or was agitated respecting the admission of foreigners, but, on the contrary, that it was confined simply to slaves, and was first voted upon and carried with that word expressed in it, which was afterwards upon reconsideration changed for ‘such persons,’ as it now stands, upon the suggestion of one of the Deputies from Connecticut. The sole reason assigned for changing it was, that it would be better not to stain the Constitutional code with such a term, since it could be avoided by the introduction of other equally intelligible words, as had been done in the former part of the same instrument, where the same sense was conveyed by the circuitous expression of ‘three fifths of all other persons.’ Mr. Dayton said that at that time he was far from believing, and that indeed until the present debate arose, he had never heard, that any one member supposed that the simple change of the term would enlarge the construction of this prohibitory provision, as it was now contended for. If it could have been conceived to be really liable to such interpretation, he was convinced that it would not have been adopted, for it would then carry with it a strong injunction upon Congress to prohibit the introduction of foreigners into newly erected States immediately, and into the then existing States after the year 1808, as it undoubtedly does, that of slaves after that period. …

Mr. Baldwin … observed that he was yesterday obliged to leave the House a little before adjournment, and he had understood that, in his absence, the remarks which he had made on that point, a few days ago, in Committee of the Whole, had been controverted, and that it had been done with some degree of harshness and personal disrespect. What he had before asserted was, that the clause respecting migration and importation was not considered at the time when it passed in the Convention as confined entirely to the subject of slaves. He spoke with the more confidence on this point, as there was scarcely one to which his attention had been so particularly called at the time. In making the Federal Constitution, when it was determined that it should be a Government possessing Legislative powers, the delegates from the two Southern States, of which he was one, were so fully persuaded that those powers would be used to the destruction of their property in slaves, that for some time they thought it would not be possible for them to be members of it: to that interesting state of the subject he had before alluded. In the progress of the business, other obstacles occurring, which he need not repeat, it was concluded to give to the delegates of those States the offer of preparing a clause to their own minds, to secure that species of property. He well remembered that when the clause was first prepared, it differed in two respects from the form in which it now stands. It used the word “slaves” instead of “migration,” or “importation,” of persons, and instead of “ten dollars,” it was expressed “five per cent. ad valorem on their importation,” which it was supposed would be about the average rate of duties under this Government. Several persons had objections to the use of the word ‘slaves,’ as Congress had hitherto avoided the use of it in their acts, and not acknowledged the existence of such a condition. It was expressly observed at the time, that making use of the form of expression as it now stands, instead of the word slaves, would make the meaning more general, and include what we now consider as included; this did not appear to be denied, but still it was preferred in its present form. He had more confidence than common in his recollection on this point, for the reasons which he had before stated. He gave it as the result of his very clear recollection. Any other member of that body was doubtless at liberty to say he did not recollect it. Still that would not diminish the confidence he felt on this occasion. …

The Speaker rose from the Chair and said, that there was something so unmanly and improper in the opportunity which had been sought by the member from Georgia of replying to the observations he had made yesterday, that he felt himself irresistibly impelled to break through the rigid form, and to express, in a single word, his sense of it. It could not have escaped the general observation, that, although they had been for some time in Committee of the Whole, when the Speaker was on the floor, and had a right in common with the other members to join in any discussion, yet that member had thought proper in that situation to maintain a perfect silence, and to permit the committee to rise, that he might take advantage of the injunction imposed upon the Chair of never entering into the debate, not even to defend himself. This advantage had been eagerly seized, and the House were witnesses of the manner of his doing it. As to the matter contained in the reply, it was not of such importance, nor so worthy of notice, the Speaker said, as to justify his requesting the House to go again into a committee, merely to give him an opportunity of directly and positively contradicting the member from Georgia, as he should most assuredly and positively do, so far as respected the proceedings of the Federal Convention in 1787.

  1. Annals of Congress, Fifth Congress, 2d and 3d Session, Ⅱ, 1968–2005.
  2. See ⅭⅭⅭⅩⅩⅩⅠ below.