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Home > Document Library > Slavery > Federalist No. 54

Federalist No. 54
excerpt on slavery

James Madison
February 12, 1788

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[Slavery is unnatural because it treats rational beings as if they were irrational beasts. — TGW]


[Madison is discussing the constitutional provision that allows the slave states to add three-fifths of their slaves to the number of free inhabitants in computing the number of representatives that each state sends to Congress. Madison writes anonymously in a New York newspaper as "Publius," so he says he will defend the three-fifths clause by presenting the views of "one of our Southern brethren."]

…But we must deny the fact that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is that they partake of both these qualities; being considered by our laws, in some respects as persons, and in other respects, as property. In being compelled to labor not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another—the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others—the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property. The federal Constitution, therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property. This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied that these are the proper criterion; because it is only under the pretext that the laws have transformed the negroes into subjects of property that a place is disputed them in the computation of numbers; and it is admitted that if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants….

[If slaves were not to be counted at all,] Might not some surprise also be expressed that those who reproach the Southern States with the barbarous policy of considering as property a part of their human brethren should themselves contend that the government to which all the States are to be parties ought to consider this unfortunate race more completely in the unnatural light of property than the very laws of which they complain?…

[From Alexander Hamilton et al., The Federalist, ed. Charles R. Kesler and Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1999) 305-6.]


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