No date is attached to this document, but it is probably a speech of March, 1819.
By the articles of confederation the common treasury was to be supplied by the several states, according to the value of the lands, with the houses and improvements thereon, within the respective states. From the difficulty in making this valuation, the old congress were unable to apportion the requisitions for the supply of the general treasury, and were obliged to propose to the states an alteration of the articles of confederation, by which the whole number of free persons, with three-fifths of the slaves contained in the respective states, should become the rule of such apportionment of the taxes.1
A majority of the states approved of this alteration, but some of them disagreed to the same; and for want of a practicable rule of apportionment, the whole of the requisitions of taxes made by congress during the revolutionary war, and afterwards, up to the establishment of the constitution of the United States, were merely provisional, and subject to the revision and correction as soon as such rules should be adopted. The several states were credited for their supplies, and charged for the advances made to them by congress; but no settlement of their accounts could be made for the want of a rule of appointment, until the establishment of the constitution.
When the general convention that formed the constitution took this subject into their consideration, the whole question was once more examined, and while it was agreed that all contributions to the common treasury should be made according to the ability of the several states, to furnish the same, the old difficulty recurred in agreeing upon a rule whereby such ability should be ascertained, there being no simple standard by which the ability of individuals to pay taxes, can be ascertained. A diversity in the selection of taxes has been deemed requisite to their equalization: between communities, this difficulty is less considerable, and although the rule of relative numbers would not accurately measure the relative wealth of nations, in states, in the circumstances of the United States, whose institutions, laws and employments are so much alike, the rule of number is probably as nearly equal as any other simple and practical rule can be expected to be, (though between the old and new states its equity is defective,) these considerations, added to the approbation which had already been given to the rule, by a majority of the states, induced the convention to agree, that direct taxes should be apportioned among the states, according to the whole number of free persons, and three-fifths of the slaves which they might respectively contain. . . .
The present House of Representatives consists of 181 members, which are apportioned among the states in a ratio of one representative for every thirty-five thousand federal numbers, which are ascertained by adding to the whole number of free persons, three-fifths of the slaves. . . . Thus while 35,000 free persons are requisite to elect one representative in a state where slavery is prohibited, 25,559 free persons in Virginia may and do elect a representative — so that five free persons in Virginia have as much power in the choice of representatives to Congress, and in the appointment of presidential electors, as seven free persons in any of the states in which slavery does not exist.
This inequality in the appointment of representatives was not misunderstood at the adoption of the constitution; but as no one anticipated the fact that the whole of the revenue of the United States would be derived from indirect taxes (which cannot be supposed to spread themselves over the several states according to the rule for the apportionment of direct taxes), but it was believed that a part of the contribution to the common treasury would be apportioned among the states by the rule for the apportionment of representatives — the states in which slavery is prohibited, ultimately, though with reluctance, acquiesced in the disproportionate number of representatives and electors that was secured to the slave-holding states. The concession was, at the time, believed to be a great one, and has proved to have been the greatest which was made to secure the adoption of the constitution.
Great, however, as this concession was, it was definite, and its full extent was comprehended. It was a settlement between the original thirteen states. The considerations arising out of their actual condition, their past connection, and the obligation which all felt to promote a reformation in the federal government, were peculiar to the time and to the parties; and are not applicable to the new states which congress may now be willing to admit into the Union.
The equality of rights, which includes an equality of burdens, is a vital principle in our theory of government, and its jealous preservation is the best security of public and individual freedom; the departure from this principle in the disproportionate power and influence allowed to the slave-holding states, was a necessary sacrifice to the establishment of the constitution. The effect of this concession has been obvious in the preponderance which it has given to the slave-holding states, over the other states. Nevertheless, it is an ancient settlement, and faith and honor stand pledged not to disturb it. But the extension of this disproportionate power to the new states would be unjust and odious. The states whose power would be abridged, and whose burdens would be increased by the measure, cannot be expected to consent to it; and we may hope that the other states are too magnanimous to insist on it.