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JQA and the Three-Fifths Compromise-Book Excerpt






On November 6, 1804, Adams published his fifth essay in a series entitled Publius Valerius. This title was derived from the man who established republican government in Rome in 509 BCE after expelling the last Roman king. These were an anonymous series of published essays precipitated by the proposal for eliminating the three-fifths clause. Adams sought to straddle his antislavery position on one hand with the retention of Federalist loyalties in Boston on the other. His desire for constitutional amendments was clear as well his deepening concern about slaveholders’ political power because of the three-fifths clause. Adams delved deeply into Ely’s proposition. “The rules of representation prescribed by the Constitution . . . is universally admitted to be unequal, and when combined with the practice under the Constitution is oppressive on all States holding few or no slaves,” Adams warned. “At present the people of the United States consist of two classes. A privileged order of slaveholding Lords, and a race of men degraded to a lower station, merely because they are not slaveholders.” Adams then struck an economic chord. “Every planter south of the Potomac has one vote for himself, and three votes in effect for every five slaves he keeps in bondage; while a New England farmer, who contributes tenfold as much to the support of the government, has only a single vote. Our share of representation is only proportionate to numbers; their share is in the same proportion of numbers, and their property is represented besides.”

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