The Road to Civil War: Constitutional Compromise

By Jon Handy

Compromise lies at the heart of the founding of the United States of America. The ideological differences between the thirteen sovereign states were so diverse and numerous that most people in that age did not believe that compromise was even within the scope of possibility. Indeed it would have failed except for the determination, stubbornness, and eloquence of such men as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and George Washington. Opinions on the type of government that our new country should establish ran the entire spectrum from tyranny to anarchy. The founders leaned toward a “Peoples Law” in a balanced center.  Peoples law was a term borrowed from ancient Israel and the twenty-eight principles of natural law by Marco Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) were used extensively by Thomas Jefferson in writing our national constitution.

 In 1787 the states were bitterly divided, and the dollar was inflated to the point that it was almost worthless. The economy was faltering, riots were breaking out, and New England was threatening to vote against joining the Union. England and France were at war and both were standing by licking their chops in anticipation of the thirteen colonies failing to unite and were poised to move in and grab the spoils of war. United, the colonies would certainly pose a much greater and more fearful threat. Only the war between France and England kept them at bay through fear of spreading themselves too thin.

Philosophical rifts between the colonies developed over many subjects, including interstate commerce, states rights, and ownership of slaves.  The type of government they would set up was also a source of great disagreement. The Whig party [1] was divided on the slave issue but strongly opposed to maintaining slavery in the new constitution.  Others in the party believed the colonies should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted to become a slave state and any new state could decide if it wanted entry to the Union as a slave state or a free state. Interstate commerce would clearly be a stumbling block to agreement, especially linked with the enterprise of the slavery trade.

The Federalists were advocates of a strong central government and were mostly pessimistic about human nature. They believed that the government must resist the passions of the general public. One of the government’s prime functions was to maintain order. The Federalists tended to place their faith in the talents of a small governing elite.  The Republican Party had not yet formed and was nonexistent at the time of writing the U.S. Constitution.

There was vehement opposition to allowing slavery into our new government, most of it coming from the Whig Party and the New York delegation.  The Democratic-Republicans argued that King James I, before the Revolutionary War, had already established slave ownership.  If the slaves were suddenly freed by a constitution, the slave states would suffer irreparable financial loss. The new government would be unable to compensate for the cotton farmer’s loss of his property (the slaves).  And hiring workers would drive their price of cotton so high that the South would priced out of the market with other cotton-producing nations using slave labor including Africa, England and Mexico.

While concord would be achieved, it was at the cost of maintaining slavery. Without allowing slavery, the United States of America would not exist today.  The British probably would have won the War of 1812 and we would all be under England’s rule. To many of the signers of our constitution, the establishment of a union was far more important than debating the morality of slavery. Compromise [2] saved the Union at the Constitutional Convention (“United We Stand”), but this was not the end of the slavery question. It came up again in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This will be the subject of my next article in this series, The Road to Civil War.


[1] The Whig party was formed in 1834 in opposition to the Democratic Party.

[2] The Three-Fifths Compromise

See Also:

The Commerce Clause, Cornell University Legal Information Institute

The Constitution of the United States of America. Library of Congress.

Lightner, David. Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War. Yale University Press. 2006.

The Missouri Compromise, Primary Document and Guide. Library of Congress.

Natural Law Theories, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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