Skip to main content

Federalist 54, slavery, and 'The 1 Percent'

Like a lot of liberals, when I think about the Constitution's original provision that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation in Congress, I often think about it in racial terms: They were literally saying that black people were less than fully human! Sometimes I think about it in political terms: Southern politicians were accruing power—and thus preserving slavery—by giving slaves any human weight at all. But I don't often think about it in economic terms.

Federalist 54 changes that for me. This is the paper in which James Madison must justify the three-fifths apportionment to the people of New York. And his primary justification is this: Slaves are a form of wealth. And wealth deserves a little extra representation in the halls of government.

No really. This is what Madison writes:
"After all, may not another ground be taken on which this article of the Constitution will admit of a still more ready defense? We have hitherto proceeded on the idea that representation related to persons only, and not at all to property. But is it a just idea? Government is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of the persons, of individuals. The one as well as the other, therefore, may be considered as represented by those who are charged with the government. Upon this principle it is, that in several of the States, and particularly in the State of New York, one branch of the government is intended more especially to be the guardian of property, and is accordingly elected by that part of the society which is most interested in this object of government. In the federal Constitution, this policy does not prevail. The rights of property are committed into the same hands with the personal rights. Some attention ought, therefore, to be paid to property in the choice of those hands.

"For another reason, the votes allowed in the federal legislature to the people of each State, ought to bear some proportion to the comparative wealth of the States. States have not, like individuals, an influence over each other, arising from superior advantages of fortune. If the law allows an opulent citizen but a single vote in the choice of his representative, the respect and consequence which he derives from his fortunate situation very frequently guide the votes of others to the objects of his choice; and through this imperceptible channel the rights of property are conveyed into the public representation. A State possesses no such influence over other States. It is not probable that the richest State in the Confederacy will ever influence the choice of a single representative in any other State. Nor will the representatives of the larger and richer States possess any other advantage in the federal legislature, over the representatives of other States, than what may result from their superior number alone. As far, therefore, as their superior wealth and weight may justly entitle them to any advantage, it ought to be secured to them by a superior share of representation."
Basically: Rich men have disproportionate influence on selecting representatives in government—more because of their awesomeness than because they purchase it seems—and so should rich states. That's why it's fair to (mostly) count slaves when determining a state's representation in the House of Representatives.

The logic, as Madison admits, is "a little strained." If wealth determines representation, then why not make a tally of all the assets within a state and determine representation accordingly? The answer, it appears, is that slaves can be punished for committing crimes—that separates them from mere livestock, and, well, it all gets very depressing to read and think about.

But Federalist 54 is interesting in light of the recent "Occupy Wall Street" protests. At the heart of the demonstrations, I believe, is a belief that every citizen should have roughly equal representation in the federal government—the anger against "The 1 Percent" is anger not just that rich people are getting richer much faster than the rest of us, but that they have disproportionate influence with our government to bend policies to their will. To the protesters, that seems undemocratic—a betrayal of the American promise.

If we're to take Madison at his word, though, the problem is actually pretty foundational: The idea that wealth deserves more say in the halls of our democratic government seems at odds with the "one person, one vote" ideals we're usually taught, but it's baked into our government's DNA, part of the founding documents. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Yoga

I've been making some life changes lately — trying to use the time I have, now that I'm back in Kansas, to improve my health and lifestyle. Among the changes: More exercise. 30 minutes a day on the treadmill. Doesn't sound like a lot, but some is more than none, and I know from experience that getting overambitious early leads to failure. So. Thirty minutes a day.

One other thing: Yoga, a couple of times a week. It's nothing huge — a 15-minute flexibility routine downloaded from an iPhone app. But I've noticed that I'm increasingly limber.

Tonight, friends, I noticed a piece of trash on the floor. I bent over at the waist and picked it up, and threw it away.

Then I wept. I literally could not remember the last time I'd tried to pick something off the floor without grunting and bracing myself. I just did it.

Small victories, people. Small victories.

Liberals: We're overthinking this. Hillary didn't lose. This is what it should mean.

Interesting:
Nate Cohn of the New York Times estimates that when every vote is tallied, some 63.4 million Americans will have voted for Clinton and 61.2 million for Trump. That means Clinton will have turned out more supporters than any presidential candidate in history except for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And as David Wasserman of Cook Political Report notes, the total vote count—including third party votes—has already crossed 127 million, and will “easily beat” the 129 million total from 2012. The idea that voters stayed home in 2016 because they hated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a myth. We already know the Electoral College can produce undemocratic results, but what we don't know is why — aside from how it serves entrenched interests — it benefits the American people to have their preference for national executive overturned because of archaic rules designed, in part, to protect the institution of slavery. 

A form of choosing the national leader that — as has happened in …

I'm not cutting off my pro-Trump friends

Here and there on Facebook, I've seen a few of my friends declare they no longer wish the friendship of Trump supporters — and vowing to cut them out of their social media lives entirely.

I'm not going to do that.

To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.

As a matter of idealism, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.

And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.

Don't get me wrong: I expect a Trumpian presidency is a disaster, particularly for people of color. And in total honesty: My own relationships have been tested by this campaign season. There's probably some damage…