Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Although the essay’s authorship has been disputed, I am following the broad consensus that Madison wrote it along with the rest of the papers about the organization of the House.

James Madison was a Southern slaveholder. But one might never have surmised that from the curiously detached tone that Publius affects in Federalist 54 in talking about what “our southern brethren [might] observe” and “the reasoning which an advocate for the southern interests might employ,” which argument nevertheless “reconciles me to the scale of representation” adopted. Madison is recorded as having ambivalent feelings about slavery, but, then, most of the Southern elite did, judging by the moral handwringing that runs through many speeches and writings on the issue at the time. One need only look at Jefferson’s thoughts expressed in his Notes on the State of Virginia. The language used on such occasions was so similar that it has led the historian Forrest McDonald to opine that slaveowners developed a nearly rote disclaimer to cleanse the conscience before proceeding to whatever topic was truly at hand.

That said, Madison at least mentions the distasteful “s-word” in Federalist 54, an appellation that the Convention tied itself into euphemistic knots to avoid writing into the Constitution, as he delves into the connections among taxation, representation, and slavery. The first two, taxation and representation, have a long and pronounced relationship in Anglo-American political history and constitutional theory. The movement for independence from the British crown is tied to them through the motto “No taxation without representation” and the events that gave rise to it.

Taxation was seen by Englishmen, as well as Americans, as particularly threatening to individuals’ liberty. By having the potential to reduce people to penury and dependence, and because taking other people’s money for one’s own benefit is an especially strong temptation that mere mortals (even more so, political actors) find difficult to resist, taxation must be done only by consent of those taxed. English constitutional theory stylized this consent into representing a “gift from the commons,” as no one could be forced to share his wealth with others. Note that this applied to direct taxes on one’s person and wealth, not necessarily to indirect levies on voluntary transactions, such as duties on imports or excises on sales of goods. This class-based constitutional theory, made concrete against the King over three centuries, allowed the House of Commons (the only practical repository of popular consent) to bind the commons to pay taxes. The theory reflected the idea that the commoners were represented in the House as a class.

The Americans agreed with the English theory that consent was needed for a constitutional tax. They disagreed with the English theory of virtual representation, which held that the Americans were represented in Parliament as part of the body of commoners. Americans subscribed to a more concrete theory of direct constituent representation, that one was represented by another for whom one had a chance to vote, or at least in whose designated geographic domain one lived.

Recall that “representation” is a crucial aspect of American republicanism. In Federalist 10, Madison exalts representation as the republican principle that ties together the large geographic polity that is the United States without turning it into a tyranny. At the same time, representation, activated by the other republican principle, the vote, protects the political majority from falling victim to an entrenched oligarchy, while also protecting political minorities to some extent from the passing passions of an aroused majority.

But some aspects of republican theory are in tension with slavery—though clearly not in practice through the ages. Tying direct taxes, which reflect wealth and are assessed on the basis of the states’ populations, to representation is easy. Adding slavery to the mix threatens the symbiosis. Slaves are property, that is, wealth. But they are also manifestly human beings.

Direct taxes were imposed on the basis of population, not assessed land values, facts that are not definitively causally related. That could distort the burdens between different states, as Madison recognizes. States with less or poorer land but higher population densities (mostly in the North) would bear a burden proportionately greater than their opposites (mostly in the South). True, most Northern states permitted slavery at the time. The “peculiar institution” (under developing Anglo-American jurisprudence, slavery was not “natural” and could only exist under the peculiar positive enactments of a polity) was much more entrenched and extensive in the South, however.

The political conundrum, as Madison explains, was that the slave interests wanted to include slaves for purposes of representation. Northerners, already fearful that their region would lose relative power to the South due to the greater fecundity of Southerners and the expected greater immigration to the South because of the longer growing season and the claims to larger western territories, objected. At the same time, economic analysis of Southern wealth (of which land was both the most plentiful and the easiest to tax), would likely include the value of slaves (who were taxed as personal property, however).  To exclude slaves, which constituted a great part of the production of Southern wealth, from a wealth-tax census was particularly galling to Northerners. Southerners, on the other hand, argued that the truncated legal rights of slaves nevertheless did not deprive them of their status as “persons” for apportioning representation any more than the truncated rights of children and various others did.

The compromise was to assign to slaves a fractional value for both taxes and representation. That “3/5 clause” preserves the republican connection between representation and taxation, yet it also symbolizes the truncated pyramid of rights that composed the American system of slavery. That solution was not novel. It had been proposed as part of a failed amendment to the Articles of Confederation in 1783 and was part of the Pinckney and Paterson plans presented to the Convention. Nor was that the last time. The Convention was able to reach a compromise that eluded the 1829 Virginia state constitutional convention, at which the elderly Madison tried to push through a 3/5 compromise to settle a simmering conflict over apportionment between the non-slave holding western counties and the slave-holding eastern counties. The eastern planters wanted slaves fully counted, while the western yeomen wanted them excluded. The planters won. That was yet another grievance of powerlessness to be nursed by the residents of what would become West Virginia in 1862, after Virginia seceded from the Union.

Direct taxes have not been used by the federal government. They are difficult to process, as they are assessed against the states, which likely would have to collect them like requisitions under the Articles. Some, such as ancient head taxes, are deemed unfairly regressive. The recent health care law’s individual penalty has the whiff of such a tax and may, therefore, be apportioned unconstitutionally under that law. Federal land taxes are also politically impractical because they penalize population-rich, property-poor states. That said, the targets of wealth taxes are difficult to hide, which is why states and localities still use them.

Federal taxes are usually “indirect” (on conduct through excises and duties on sales or purchases of goods or services) or are income taxes. The last are difficult to assess accurately because income can be hidden. Sales cannot be hidden as easily, and such levies are easy to collect. That is also a feature of the much-discussed value-added tax. On the other hand, the final purchase price can mask the full amount of the VAT, making the tax’s opaqueness a troublesome consequence to the consumer.

The slave holders among the Founders have been accused rather too easily of hypocrisy and posturing for their public attachment to equality, as represented in the Declaration of Independence. The meaning of “equality” is much more complex. We, too, have different understandings of equality. Current conflicts between equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome versus equality of condition are an example. Hypocrisy requires a conscious rejection of principles of right behavior that one espouses. Falling short of one’s professed principles (when one still accepts their rightness) is not hypocrisy. Nor can we accuse the Founders of hypocrisy if their understanding of the principles differed from ours.

Only a few interpretations of equality, not generally so understood by the public at the time, might condemn slavery. Mostly, a general appeal to equality was not inconsistent with maintaining the institution of slavery. The Declaration is clearly rooted in modified Lockeanism. For Locke, basic political equality meant that all were created equal in the sense that none had the natural or divinely-created right of absolute rule over others. The Declaration, with its “consent of the governed” language in immediate proximity to the equality language, bears out this limited understanding of equality. Lack of a natural or divinely-ordained political right to rule does not necessarily foreclose an inequality imposed by peculiar laws (as Madison recognizes in his essay), or in non-political matters.

Equality in the religious society of the Founding meant theological equality before God and metaphysical equality in that all humans were moral actors (as Madison notes regarding slaves) who had to perform moral duties imposed by God and nature. God would judge personal failings in another life. This interpretation, as well, is not inconsistent with slavery on Earth.

Even a view of the term as meaning equality before the law was not incompatible with slavery. As Madison writes in Federalist 54, the slave codes provided a truncated set of legal protections for slaves. These codes became quite exhaustive over time. True, slaves lacked some of the rights of freemen (including, obviously, some crucial ones from our perspective). But so did women, children, indentured servants, criminals, the insane, and others. No one would have considered that this meant those groups were not “created equal” at a sufficiently high level of abstraction.

Americans as a group were not particularly outraged at that time about slavery because it was so common an institution in history and in their society. More immediately, the practice of the institution in the 1780s was comparatively mild, especially in contrast to the abject conditions from which many Americans had emigrated in the not-distant past. Some Americans professed concern. Thomas Jefferson wrote, musing about slavery, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Forrest McDonald responds, “But few of his countrymen trembled with him.”

Monday, July 12th, 2010

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is

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