Slavery in the Constitution: Why the Lower South Occasionally Succeeded at the Constitutional Convention

AuthorKeith Dougherty
Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 638 –650
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919848843
In 1786, tensions between the North and South came to a
head when Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay asked
Congress to forgo navigation of the Mississippi River for
a period of twenty-five to thirty years to close a deal with
Spain that protected Northern fishing. Jay had been
instructed to secure both objectives, but he requested to
forgo the Southern part of the deal to attain the Northern
part. After a bitter debate, Congress repealed Jay’s earlier
instructions to protect the Mississippi River by a vote of
seven states to five. All seven Northern states voted in
favor of the proposal and all five Southern states,
Maryland southward, voted against.1 The vote illustrated
why the South could not win purely sectional votes in the
Congress of the Confederation.
Jillson and Wilson’s (1994) multidimensional scaling
of the Congress of the Confederation illustrates the polar-
ization in Congress at the time. Sectional issues were so
dominant that Congress divided itself into two disjoint
clusters in 1786, a Northern cluster and a Southern one,
along a sectional dimension of voting.
Shortly thereafter, the Lower South, South Carolina
and Georgia,2 was surprisingly successful at the
Constitutional Convention. The convention agreed to
prohibit federal interference with the slave trade until
1808, to guarantee fugitive slaves would be returned to
their masters, and to prevent export tariffs.3 It also
provided a louder voice for Southerners by counting
three-fifths of slaves in the apportionment of the House of
Representatives. The latter agitated Northerners and led
extreme New England Federalists, such as Timothy
Pickering and William Plummer, to propose New
England’s secession from the union.
Counting Delaware northward as the North, Northern
states outnumbered Southern states eight to five in the
confederation, making it particularly surprising that the
Lower South partly succeeded at the convention.4 Why
does the Constitution have so many clauses that seem to
protect slavery? What caused the Lower South to succeed
on some votes at the convention and to fail on others?
The standard historical account is that these clauses
resulted from vote trades (Lynd 1966; McDonald 1965;
Rossiter 1966; Stewart 2008; Van Cleve 2010). For the
purposes of this paper, it is important to differentiate a
vote trade from a compromise. A Vote Trade occurs if one
person votes for (or against) another person’s issue in
exchange for the other person’s vote for (or against) their
issue. For example, delegates from the Lower South
848843PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919848843Political Research QuarterlyDougherty
1University of Georgia, Athens, USA
Corresponding Author:
Keith Dougherty, Department of Political Science, University of
Georgia, 180 Baldwin Hall, Athens, GA 30602, USA.
Slavery in the Constitution: Why the
Lower South Occasionally Succeeded
at the Constitutional Convention
Keith Dougherty1
The Lower South’s successes at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 contributed to a constitution that prohibited
federal interference with the slave trade until 1808, guaranteed fugitive slaves would be returned to their masters,
and prevented export tariffs. We explain why the Lower South occasionally succeeded on sectional issues at the
convention using a multiple-dimensional model of sincere voting, estimated using a new dataset of delegate votes,
multiple imputation, and optimal classification. We argue that mixing sectional issues with powers of the federal
government made the Lower South more mainstream and helped it gain support from various Northern delegations.
We test this relationship using regression analysis and apply it to two substantive issues where the Lower South
succeeded. The result is a largely new account of how slavery became encoded in the Constitution.
U.S. Constitutional Convention, Lower South, slavery

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