Slavery was a problem that faced all Americans in the years prior to the American Civil War. Many Americans wanted to bring about an end to it but were unable to come up with a workable plan. One person to try and find an answer to the problem was himself a slave owner; he was James Madison. The institution of slavery deeply concerned James Madison, even at the start of his political career. During his career, Madison held many important political offices; he used these offices to try to bring to an end this “evil” in his society.
Some criticized him for not using his power to fuller advantage, but Madison had a plan for achieving his objective. It is difficult to determine where James Madison’s idea that slavery was evil and should be done away with came from, however two events, only a few years before his birth may have been a factor. In June of 1737, a court of Oyer and Terminer ordered that a slave named Peter, guilty of “murthering his said master,” be hanged. 1 His head was cut off and placed on a pole near a creek for all to see.
There is no evidence James Madison saw the head on the pole but, he must have heard about it for the creek was renamed, Negrohead Run. In 1745, a black female slave, Eve, was burned to death for poisoning her master, Mr. Peter Montague. Thomas Chew, sheriff and great-uncle of James Madison carried out Eve’s sentence. Speculation exists that Madison’s father was present and related the story to his son years later. These repugnant events may not have had an effect on Madison, but the efforts of his parents were a factor.
The institution of slavery as Madison grew up with it combined “the personal ease of the master with a life long consideration of the servant. “2 In his book, A History of the Old South, Clement Eaton describes many Southerners as having a guilt complex over slavery. Historians are uncertain whether James Madison had a guilt complex but he did grow up with a respect for the slaves on his father’s farm. This respect stayed with Madison his entire life.
His personal servant, Paul Jennings, related years after Madison’s death that, Mr. Madison] often told the story, that one day riding home from court with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor [James] Barbour), they met a colored man who took off his hat. Mr. M. raised his, to the surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. M. replied, “I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness. “3 When Madison wrote home to his father he would often ask about “the family. ” To Madison “the family” included the family slaves. The first direct reference to slavery in Madison’s writings is in a letter written to Joseph Jones.
Jones wrote Madison asking his opinion of offering a slave as a bonus to those who enlisted to fight in the war for independence. Madison responded by offering another solution to the lack of manpower by saying, I am glad to find the legislature persist in their resolution to recruit their line of the army for the war, though without deciding on the expediency of the mode under their consideration, would it not be as well to liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks themselves as to make them instruments for enlisting white Soldiers? It wd. rtainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be loss sight of in a contest for liberty. 4
On one of Madison’s frequent trips to Philadelphia his slave Billey became too taken with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, in Madison’s opinion, to be a fit companion for his fellow slaves in Virginia. In a letter to his father Madison wrote, I . . . cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right & worthy the pursuit, of every human being.
Whatever arrangements Madison made for Billey, they could not have lasted for more than seven years according to Pennsylvania law. The arrangements must have been beneficial to Billey, because several years later he turned up in the Madison correspondence as William Gardener, a merchant in Philadelphia handling much of the Madison family’s business. Gardener continued to assist the Madison family in this capacity until he died in a storm on a trip to New Orleans.
Back in Virginia, Carter H. Harrison made a motion, in the 1785 session of the Virginia House of Delegates, to repeal a 1782 act that allowed slave owners to voluntarily manumit their slaves. Harrison thought slavery was a great blessing. Harrison’s measure passed by a single vote. James Madison wrote to his brother, Ambrose, that the backward step would not only be dishonorable but would make the dreaded freeing of all slaves that much sooner. Madison dreaded the freeing of all slaves because neither he or Thomas Jefferson thought that it was the proper time to advance the proposition of total emancipation.
During that same year, 1785, Madison spoke in favor of a Jefferson bill for the gradual abolition of slavery; it failed. A young French observer, who wrote about this described Madison as, “A young man [who]. . . astonishes . . . his eloquence, his wisdom,and his genius, has had the humanity and courage (for such a proposition requires no small share of courage) to propose a general emancipation of the slaves…. “6 James Madison’s feelings about the slavery issue become even clearer as events led to the Federal Convention of 1787.
In his treatise written before the convention, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison wrote, “Where slavery exists the republican Theory becomes still more fallacious. “7 At the convention Madison worked hard to keep direct reference to the word “slave” out of the Constitution. On June 30th, in the heat of the debate over representation in the Congress, James Madison offered what he thought was a compromise solution.
Seeing that the true division was not the big states against the little ones but the North against the South, he proposed that the representation in one house be based on the number of free inhabitants in each state plus three-fifths of the number of slaves. The second house would be based solely on the number of free inhabitants. He also worked to free the nation of the slave trade problem.
Of the twenty year limit compromise he initially said, Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the National character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution. 8 However, he was realistic and clearly saw that the South would never ratify the document if the trade was immediately outlawed; so he agreed to the twenty year compromise.
When the discussions turned to whether the Congress would be able to place a tariff on the importation of slaves, Mr. Madison thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandize, consumed, &c. 9 In the years of ratification that followed Madison repeatedly defended these points. In The Federalist Papers, Madison says in defence of the twenty year compromise, “Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years. By the old it is permitted forever. “10
In Federalist #42, he says It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period it will receive considerable discouragement from the Federal government and be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union.
Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppression of their European brethren! 11 At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Madison argued in support of the clause extending slave trade until 1808 by saying that the convention did it in order to keep the Southern states in the union, for if they did not join the union, the consequences might be dreadful to them and to us. We are not in a worse situation than before.
That traffic is prohibited by our laws, and we may continue the prohibition. The union in general is not in a worse situation. Under the old system it would be continued forever. James Madison was elected to the new Congress after the ratification process was complete. He continued to work to bring about an end to slavery through prudent constitutional methods. One attempt he supported was Congress’s imposition of a tax on the importation of slaves.
James Madison argued in support of a motion to place a duty on the importation of slaves as part of a broader import duty bill. Many others supported the bill but wanted to separately consider the slave question. Madison said that some may see some inconsistency in treating human beings as a species of property but that does not happen in this bill. His purpose in enumerating persons with merchandise is to prevent others from treating them as such.
James Madison saw no evil in numbering persons as merchandise for the purpose of taxation only in treating them as property. Madison hoped that Congress would express the nation’s abhorrence of the slave trade, through a taxation on the importation of slaves. He was not trying to protect Virginia’s domestic slave trade but fighting the institution itself through a constitutional method and pointing out its demoralizing effects on the community. His colleague, Jonathan Parker, showed slavery’s inconsistencies with the principles of the Declaration of Independence.