This vote, which exactly mirrors the tally of those states who were willing to extend the period during which slave importations would be free from interference by Congress by eight years ” (Paragraph 2969), shows the lamentable indifference harbored by some members of the New England states on the question of putting an end to this evil. Their quid pro quo would be the vote on navigation acts taken on August 29 (Paragraph 3168).
The states that voted against the measure are not surprising, but some of the states that voted in favor of it should raise some eyebrows: Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. The tally on this vote to extend the slave trade from the year 1800 to 1808 is identical to that which would adopt the 20-year compromise into the Constitution (Paragraph 2978). It shows that, for these commercial states, the promise of making navigation acts easier to pass was a tempting inducement to turn a blind eye to the continued importation of slaves.
This vote, which would direct the question of “navigation acts” to the same committee that was to reconsider the slave trade, shows that the Framers were consciously seeking to find a compromise between these two issues – both of which had been stumbling blocks between the regional interests of North and South. Paul Finkelman calls the compromise that will result from this bargain “The Dirty Compromise.”
It is disappointing, to say the least, that Gouverneur Morris – the Framer who delivered some of the most impassioned and eloquent polemics against slavery and the slave trade at the Convention – is here the one to suggest that the North and South might truck and bargain over the issue. As David B. Davis has so acerbically written: “Gouverneur Morris, having paid tribute to the sacred laws of humanity, suggested that a bargain might be struck if a special committee considered the slave trade along with taxes on imports and exports.”
Paul Finkelman (who is not one to normally give the American Founders any quarter over their handling of the difficult issue of slavery) believes that Morris did not give way so much as this speech would suggest. If Morris never approved the compromise that proceeded from his own suggestion, then it would be similar to his proposal for smoothing over the dissension over the three-fifths clause. Finkelman suggests that this proposal “was a bargain in which he, and the Pennsylvania delegation, did not take part, for Pennsylvania opposed the slave trade to the end.” While it is true that Morris continued to oppose the three-fifths clause even after he helped get it passed, there is less evidence that he continued to oppose what became the Twenty-year Compromise. In any event, it is likely that Morris’ reputation would have been better served if he had fought the good fight against the slave trade and failed. His willingness to tie commercial advantages for his own state to greater indulgence for the slave trade is what gives this compromise such a bad name (Finkleman elsewhere call it “the dirty compromise.”)