Author & Speaker

Thanks to James, Rufus, and Gouverneur, Part Deux

This morning’s news flashes from world markets suggest that the U.S. $700 billion rescue had a lot less impact on the current crisis than an over-the-weekend pledge by European nations to back their own banks. I’m for whatever works to settle things down, save some jobs, and even buck up the 401k just a smidge. Still, the U.S. rescue plan is an essential part of the global response.
Having demonstrated in the last post the importance of the Senate’s more deliberative, “aristocratic” role, this time I want to talk about Congress’ power to legislate on economic matters, the “commerce power.”
The Constitution’s first draft, written by a committee during a midsummer recess, required a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress to approve commercial statutes. Southern delegates demanded the provision to protect against the commercial New England and Middle Atlantic states.
But the Southerners won too much: The committee draft guaranteed the importation of slaves forever, banned all export taxes, and blocked import duties on imported slaves. The reaction from other delegates was swift.
Rufus King of Massachusetts challenged the protections for the slave trade and the ban on export taxes. Northerners “could never be reconciled,” he insisted, to the unequal bargain.
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Rufus King of Massachusetts
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, joined the attack. Slavery, he insisted, “was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” Better to purchase every slave than “saddle posterity with such a Constitution.”
Faced with an insurrection, the delegates appointed a committee to deal with the interrelated questions. Morris approved the effort to “form a bargain among the Northern and Southern states.”
In that bargain, the North won a 20-year limit on the protection for slave imports, as well as a tax on them. More important for Americans in 2008, the South relinquished the two-thirds vote requirement for commercial statutes, even though Edmund Randolph of Virginia denounced that change as “complet[ing] the deformity of the system.”
That revision in the Constitution made possible the bank rescue legislation of 2008. The final vote in the House, a 60-40 margin in favor of passage, would not have met the two-thirds requirement of the initial version of the Constitution.
If the bank rescue legislation works, we all can thank James (Madison, see last post), Rufus, and Gouverneur for their decisions two hundred twenty-one years ago.