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Oliver Ellsworth

Oliver Ellsworth was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention from Connecticut, a U.S. senator, and the third chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ellsworth played a major role in the Connecticut Plan (or Connecticut Compromise), which proposed an election of members of the Senate by state legislatures (Article 1, Section 3). (This section of the Constitution was later revised by the 17th Amendment, which provides for the election of senators by popular vote.)

When Ellsworth says, “as he had never owned a slave [he] could not judge of the effects of slavery on character,” he is not only establishing his own moral purity with respect to slavery, he is delivering a barb aimed directly at Mason.  George Mason, who owned more slaves than anyone else at the Convention, had just finished proclaiming that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.”  (Paragraph 2755) Ellsworth therefore echos many modern scholars who today excoriate Virginia slaveowners for their hypocritical posturing against slavery.  Seen from the other side, however, the situation ought to remind us that it in fact took a great deal of courage for Virginian slaveowners to make these arguments, because they thereby opened themselves up to this kind of jeering. 

By contrast, Ellsworth proves himself to be, not only hypocritical on this subject, but also callous.  The moral barrenness of this argument, and its warped notion of justice, should not be overlooked or downplayed.  Ellsworth is saying that, since South Carolina and Georgia are killing off their slaves so rapidly by forcing them to work in unhealthy conditions, it would be “unjust” if states like Virginia were to deprive them of fresh slaves from Africa.  Speeches such as these demonstrate that it would be a mistake to regard the Deep South as having a monopoly on pro-slavery sentiment.

Ellsworth’s hypocrisy can be seen by comparing his speeches in the Convention to those he makes during the Ratifying debates.  During the Constitutional Convention, he twice urged that his fellow delegates should ignore any moral considerations with respect to the slave trade and leave the matter entirely to the discretion of the Southern States (here and at Paragraph 2748).   When he later addressed his fellow Northerners during the Ratification debates as The Landholder (No. VI), however, he reverted to a more pious posture.  He there insisted that “all good men wish the entire abolition of slavery,” and “the only possible step that could be taken towards it by the convention was to fix a period after which [slaves] should not be imported.”  He even had the impudence to accuse George Mason of opposing the slave trade on purely self-interested grounds (a calumny which has often been repeated against the Virginia Framers, but for which no one has ever provided any supporting evidence). 

If it is indeed legitimate to vilify Mason because ñhis objections [to the slave trade] are not on the side of freedom, nor in compassion to the human race who are slaves,” then that would imply that “all good men” should allow their moral principles to guide federal policy on the slave trade.  That position was not the one he took within the debates of Constitutional Convention.  It would have been more to Ellsworth’s credit if he had expressed that view when it might have made a difference.  But what goes around comes around.  Forrest McDonald has said of this passage that “even Ellsworth could not perceive the problem as anything other than a practical one” – the same accusation that Ellsworth leveled against George Mason, with less justification.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

It would not be unreasonable to accuse Oliver Ellsworth of some hypocrisy on this subject.  During the Constitutional Convention, he twice urged that his fellow delegates should ignore any moral considerations with respect to the slave trade and leave the matter entirely to the discretion of the Southern States (here and at Paragraph 2756).   When he later addressed his fellow Northerners during the Ratification debates as The Landholder (No. VI), however, he reverted to a more pious posture.  He there insisted that “all good men wish the entire abolition of slavery,” and “the only possible step that could be taken towards it by the convention was to fix a period after which [slaves] should not be imported.”  He even had the impudence to accuse George Mason of opposing the slave trade on purely self-interested grounds (a calumny which has often been repeated, but for which no one has ever provided any supporting evidence). If it is indeed legitimate to vilify Mason because "his objections [to the slave trade] are not on the side of freedom, nor in compassion to the human race who are slaves,” then that would imply that “all good men” should allow their moral principles to guide federal policy on the slave trade.  That was not the position he took within the debates of Constitutional Convention.  It would have been more to Ellsworth’s credit if he had expressed that view when it might have made a difference.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013