John Parillo Explains Federalist 54

This paper is about the proportional representation in the House of Representatives, but ultimately Madison is writing about much more than that here. In Federalist 54 Madison says that it is quite natural that taxes be apportioned to the number of people living in the individual states. It is also natural that representation be apportioned in the same way. It would be darn near impossible to allocate representation by wealth because “it is in no case a precise measure, and in ordinary cases a very unfit one.”[1]

As we begin to flirt with the idea of wealth taxes, we should remember this concept. The issue at the time Madison is writing is very different of course. What the founders were wrestling with here was the definition of ‘person’ and ‘wealth’ as it pertains to the existence of slavery. If slaves are property and not persons then they should naturally not be counted when considering population for the apportioning of representatives, rather they should be considered when calculating wealth. There were several aspects of slavery that make them clearly property including “being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty”. In these senses the slave is property.

However, in other cases they were treated much like a citizen including, being “protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others…and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others”. In these circumstances the slave is treated like any other citizen. Because of this dual view of slaves, they are, “by the laws under which they live” both property and people. It is important here to remember that Madison thought that slavery was an abomination. He admits that it is “only under the pretext that the laws have transformed the negroes into subjects of property”, and because of that, those same laws could be changed to give them freedom. When that freedom happens, they would deserve equal representation. That means that the idea of treating them strictly as property is indefensible.

Even as the southern states persist in the “barbarous policy of considering as property a part of their human brethren”, it would be impossible to consider slaves as property for tax reasons and then not as persons for representative purposes. The southern states would never agree to that treatment. It is important here to remember that Madison is attempting to defend the proposed constitution and the compromises necessary for its ratifications. In fairness to the southern states, it should be pointed out that, if the slaves had been counted as citizens for purposes of representation, it is likely that the northern states would have rejected that position as weakening their proportion of representatives by increasing the population of southern states.

It should also be remembered that the proposed constitution allows the individual states to decide who gets to vote, the process for voting, and how to conduct their individual state censuses. This leaves the founders with the quandary of either allowing for their desired result, a republic of independent states, or attempting to control voting on a national level, another process that would have guaranteed that the proposed constitution failed. Voting laws are held by the states in order to give them a defense against federal intrusion.

Madison points out that government “is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of the persons”. In fact, the original wording of the Declaration was ‘Life, Liberty, and Property’. It was changed to ‘Happiness’ because of Aristotle’s admonition that each individual’s happiness needed to be defined by the individual. Property in that sense is assumed to be a component of happiness. Madison points out that even though a wealthy person has the same vote as one who is less so, the wealthy will likely “frequently guide the votes of others to the objects of his choice” and thus “rights of property are conveyed into the public representation.”

The wealthy of one state may have no influence over the votes of any other state but, within their own states, “wealth and weight may justly entitle them to any advantage, it ought to be secured to them by a superior share of representation.” As we look at our current distrust of the wealthy, it should be remembered that the founders saw wealth as the natural result of industriousness.

If we are to summarize Madison’s thinking here it would be that, protecting property, even if it as a result of an odious practice, is a fundamental role of government. That if slaves are property, then they cannot be considered full persons for the purposes of representation. But they are persons, regardless of their current legal status, so they deserve some representation. Madison is reconciled to the compromise.

I should point out here that nowhere in this paper does Madison defend slavery. Nowhere does he defend the argument that three fifths number is a reasonable compromise, only that it was necessary. His task, along with Hamilton and John Jay, is defend the proposed constitution, and to work for its ratification.

And in doing so, the Constitution lays the groundwork for slaves being persons under the law, and for their eventual emancipation.

To read all of John Parillo’s work on the Federalist Papers, check here.

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5 thoughts on “John Parillo Explains Federalist 54”

  1. Was Madison seeking the compromise to prevent or forestall a war? I’m guessing that may be the case. It worked for a while.

    I think the practice of owning slaves couldn’t work, primarily because there is no king or queen to hold everyone as subjects, which makes slavery impractical, not to mention abominable. The formation of the constitutional republic should have been the shot across the bow to those who held slaves as chattel.
    I just can’t see the practice continuing as long as it has. Australia, England, well any country based on a version of a monarchical rule makes the people subjects, which is a form of slavery, just watered down.

    That constitution gave us a choice, and while the choice ultimately ended in a civil war to resolve, there was no other course.

    Madison was a pretty wise man, wasn’t he?

    • We know that slavery was an abomination. The question that keeps coming to my mind is, what was it about Western Civilization that made it the first place where the practice was ended? What made it unique in that regard?

      We must understand that and defend the thoughts behind it.

      • All the atrocities of monarchical government finally ate to the core of reasonable people, who were looking for a better and more reasonable form of governance.

        I don’t remember off the top of my head, but there were those who preceded the Madisons of that period, like Locke, Montesquieu, the author(s) of the Magna Carta and other people and ideas that eventually laid enough groundwork to bring us out from the cold. It took a pretty long time to work its way to what we have now, and the Constitution could stand a few corrections or improvements.
        Anyway, there was a long modification of ideas about freedom and responsibility between 1215 and 1776.

        Don’t you think that western civilization was the right breeding ground to take an idea and improve oj it, just because? Just because those in the British monarchy let everyone down with their slap happy approach to adherence to the Magna Carta, over time? British monarchy was like a revolving door, when it came to what was on the mind of the latest king or queen, and when said king or queen can literally behead his idealistic opposition, he is just a tyrant.
        I haven’t thought about that, in a long time, but there are probably a ton of reasons, because of just one king, to come up with a stroke of genius in the Constitution.
        But, if you hadn’t written this, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it. Thanks for jarring my flawed memory.

  2. Madison. Hamilton Jefferson et al were both altruistic and realistic. The goal was to establish a “more perfect Union” than had ever existed. It couldn’t be perfect because we are men not God and men who had very different perspectives, morals and goals. IMHO Madison’s goal was to ensure the creation of a better form of government and Union than had ever existed to date. That required then and still requires compromise.

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