The Revolution: Thomas Jefferson on the Draft Articles of Confederation (Part I)

The Autobiography. By: Thomas Jefferson.

July 30, 1776 – July 31, 1776

In Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, he wrote of the debate and adoption of the Articles of Confederation. While the country has long learned that the Constitution is far superior to those Articles, the reasons why must extend beyond “a stronger national government was needed under the Articles, and the Constitution cured that defect.” A committee took up the Articles on July 30th and 31st and then August 1st of 1776. During the first couple days, the delegates debated how to calculate each state’s monetary contribution to the “common treasury” and the “manner of voting in Congress.” And it was there that controversy occurred; controversy that would continue to the time when the Constitution was drafted and adopted and even to nearly 250 years later.

Article XI of the draft Articles of Confederation stated: “All charges of war & all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence, or general welfare, and allowed by the United States assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several colonies in proportion to the number of inhabitants of every age, sex & quality, except Indians not paying taxes, in each colony, a true account of which, distinguishing the white inhabitants, shall be triennially taken & transmitted to the Assembly of the United States.”

Samuel Chase argued that quotas were best and that those quotas should be tethered to the number of “white inhabitants” as that number would be more readily ascertainable than what others had been suggesting: making the quota tied to the value of property in every state. Chase, however, “observed that negroes are property, and as such cannot be distinguished from the lands or personalities held in those States where there are few slaves, that the surplus of profit which a Northern farmer is able to lay by, he invests in cattle, horses &c. whereas a Southern farmer lays out that same surplus in slaves.” Based on that, Chase posited, “negroes in fact should not be considered as members of the state more than cattle & that they have no more interest in it.”

John Adams arose. Taking a more principled stand, he said that people should be the measure and that “it was of no consequence by what name you called your people, whether by that of freemen or of slaves.” Proof of this was the fact that “500 freemen produce no more profits, no greater surplus for the paiment of taxes than 500 slaves.” To this Benjamin Harrison objected and offered a compromise: “two slaves should be counted as one freeman” for the “slaves did not do so much work as freemen,” and “this was proved by the price of labor.” Hiring a laborer in the South was typically 8 to 12 pounds, and in the North it was generally 24 pounds. James Wilson noted the practical effect of all this. The “Southern colonies would have all the benefit of slaves, whilst the Northern ones would bear the burden” as the Southern states would enjoy more profits due to the slaves. To Wilson, the men gathered had a “duty to lay every discouragement on the importation of slaves; but this amendment would give the jus trium liberorum (Latin for “the right to three children”) to him who would import slaves.” That “right to three children” harked back to Ancient Rome when the Emperor Augustus favored the upper class by rewarding them with rights for having more children (such as men being excused from compulsory service and women being free to end the guardianship that a male relative held), which naturally led to widespread fraud and loopholes.

Dr. John Witherspoon had had enough. He continued to trust that the “value of lands & houses was the best estimate of the wealth of a nation, and that it was practicable to obtain such a valuation.” To attempt to measure how slaves should be counted based on what food they ate that could have gone to the freedmen was foolish, and the reality was that in “the Southern colonies slaves pervade the whole colony; but they do not pervade the whole continent.”

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