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But history has a way of confounding those who think they can control it.
Over the last few years, the Trump administration has fought to shape the 2020 census to its political benefit and the benefit of the Republican Party. In 2018, it sought to introduce a citizenship question on the census itself, to reduce response rates among immigrant communities. Then, after that was rebuffed by the Supreme Court, it tried to exclude unauthorized immigrants altogether, in direct conflict with the Constitution, which calls on Congress to count “the whole number of persons in each State.” Now it wants to cut the census short and deliver it uncompleted — a last-ditch effort to rig the nation’s politics for the sake of its exclusionary political vision.
The goal is to freeze political representation in place as much as possible; to keep demographic change — the growing share of Americans who are Black, Hispanic and Asian-American — from swamping the Republican Party’s ability to win national elections with a white, heavily rural minority.
The census, as Trump and his allies correctly understand, is a critical source of dynamism within the American political system. A political majority (or in Trump’s case, a minority) can try to insulate itself from demographic shifts and transformations, but the fact of mandatory reapportionment makes that difficult. New people — whether immigrants or Americans moving from place to place — will always mean new politics.
It is ironic, then, that the origin of the census lies less in principles of democratic representation, and more in the interests of slaveholders, who wanted political recognition of their slave wealth, with constitutional assurance that this peculiar interest would always weigh on future apportionment. But in a perfect example of unintended consequences, the slaveholders’ push for a census would help lay the groundwork for the end of the institution itself.
The decennial federal census comes out of the fight over congressional representation at the Constitutional Convention. Upon gathering in Philadelphia in 1787, the delegates agreed quickly that the United States should have a bicameral legislature, in keeping with the Virginia Plan, James Madison’s blueprint for a new national government. They agreed, too, that the lower house of Congress should be directly elected by voters, with the upper house chosen indirectly. But they disagreed, sharply, over apportionment.
Madison’s plan called for apportioning representation in both chambers of the national legislature according to “the quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants, as the one or the other rule may seem best in different cases.” Proportional representation, he thought, would lead larger states like Pennsylvania and his native Virginia to join the union, since they would have greater say in government. As would the smaller states of the lower South — North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — which were expected to experience rapid growth as a result of new migrants and the “natural increase” of slaves.
Of course, it wouldn’t be so easy. Under the original Articles of Confederation, each state claimed equal representation in Congress. Small state delegates like those from Delaware and Connecticut liked that arrangement and sought to preserve it as much as possible. Against supporters of population-based apportionment — who noted it was “the rights of the people composing” the states who deserved representation — small state delegates argued that the federal government was to be formed for states “in their political capacity, as well as for the individuals composing them.” Besides, they continued, larger states would dominate the government if the convention abandoned the principle of equal representation.
The solution, as most Americans know, was the “Great Compromise,” in which equal state voting would survive in the Senate and proportional representation would prevail in the House of Representatives. This was a momentous decision, not just because it kept the convention from falling apart, although it did, but because it dictated the shape of the compromise over how to actually proportion representation.
At the time, Michael J. Klarman, a legal historian, noted in “The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution,” that “most elite statesmen believed that political representation ought to reflect wealth as well as population” and “several state constitutions provided for legislative apportionment based partly on wealth.” As Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina argued, the South’s “superior wealth” should have “its due weight in the government.” And northern delegates like Rufus King of Massachusetts sympathized with this view, confessing he “had always expected that as the southern states are the richest, they would not league themselves with the northern unless some respect were paid to their superior wealth.”
If equal state representation — which disregarded the size and wealth of each state — was the rule for the Senate, then proportional representation in the House had to factor in wealth, including the ownership of slaves, the major economic interest for the South. This led us to the three-fifths clause, based off a proposed “federal ratio” for taxation under the Articles, which ensured slave wealth representation. “The three-fifths clause,” the historian George William Van Cleve writes in “A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the early American Republic,” “was the explicitly chosen political-security foundation for the constitutional bargain protecting the political economy of the slave states.”
Even still, in its initial apportionment of the House, the committee responsible gave the eight northern states a modest seven-seat advantage over the five southern states, 36 to 29. More important, as the historian Jack N. Rakove explains in “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,” the committee left reapportionment up to the discretion of Congress. “The Atlantic States having the government in their own hands, may take care of their own interest,” explained Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, “by dealing out the right of Representation in safe proportions to the Western States.”
This was a problem for the Southerners, who were already unhappy with their initial minority status in the Legislature. Discretionary reapportionment gave the northern majority control over the political future of the region. As I said earlier, there was broad expectation of rapid growth in the South and its western lands, including among enslaved people. Would a northern majority account for slave growth in its reapportionment? Would it give equal political representation to the migrants of the Southwest? Or would it entrench itself against demographic change? “Those who have power in their hands,” warned George Mason of Virginia, “will not give it up while they can retain it.”
The solution was to take reapportionment out of the hands of Congress. “According to the present population of America,” Mason declared, “the northern part of it had a right to preponderate, and he could not deny it. But he wished it not to preponderate hereafter when the reason no longer continued.”
Northern delegates resisted, but they lost. “The apportionment of representatives in the future,” Klarman writes, “would be based on a census, which the Constitution would require Congress to undertake within three years of its first meeting and then again once every decade.” And slaves would be counted on the same three-fifths basis as they were for the initial apportionment of the House. To assuage a northern public that might object to representation for enslaved people, a Pennsylvania delegate, Gouverneur Morris, proposed a clause to tie representation to taxation, which had not yet been under discussion.
Instead of saying outright that enslaved people would count for representation, they would link representation to “direct taxes” (which no delegate expected the federal government to ever impose) and link that to a population that included slaves. “The delegates could pretend that they were not doing what they were actually doing,” the historian Robin L. Einhorn explains in “American Taxation, American Slavery.” She quotes delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania making this exact point: “Less umbrage would perhaps be taken” against “an admission of the slaves into the rule of representation, if it should be so expressed as to make them indirectly only an ingredient in the rule, by saying they should enter into the rule of taxation: and as representation was to be according to taxation, the end would be equally attained.”
In other words, as with so much of the Constitution of 1787, the census is wrapped up in slavery as an institution of significant political and economic influence. And the slaveholder gambit worked, for a time. As slavery grew to new heights in the first decades of the 19th century, mandatory reapportionment gave greater influence to the slaveholding South, providing it with a strong grip on the federal government.
But what no one at the time of the founding could have anticipated was mass immigration to the Northern states and its territories. Millions of immigrants — the bulk arriving from Germany, Ireland and Britain — reached American shores between 1830 and 1860. Rather than settle in the South to compete with enslaved Africans, they remained in the North, moving to cities like New York and Boston or going west to states like Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin.
These immigrants changed the face of American politics. Germans, in particular, would play a significant role in the mass antislavery politics of the 1850s. “German émigrés joined existing radical movements, the labor movement, land reform, and abolition while others became free soilers,” the historian Manisha Sinha writes in “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.” German refugees from the failed revolutions of 1848 “formed alliances with abolitionists and brought a substantial section of the German immigrant population into the Republican Party.”
And the census, of course, helped ensure that these demographic and cultural and ideological changes would make their way into Congress. The decade before the Civil War saw an influx of antislavery congressmen into the House of Representatives, first as Free Soilers, then as Republicans. Indeed, it is the rise of a popular antislavery politics that sets up the legislative confrontations and political realignments of the 1850s that culminated in the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
The census is completely unassuming. Almost no one outside of politicians, bureaucrats and the professionally interested thinks about it, or about reapportionment. But these provisions are quietly powerful parts of our constitutional order. Their creation, Van Cleve notes, meant acceptance of the idea that the political majority “should be continuously represented in government, no matter where that majority was found within the nation’s expanding boundaries.” It meant that no existing political majority could ever fully insulate itself from the winds of change.
Southern slaveholders were, among the delegates to Philadelphia, the least committed to popular government. South Carolina, to use one example, would be a planter oligarchy until after the Civil War. But in their drive to protect their political and economic interests, they introduced a mechanism for population representation that eventually helped fuel the forces of abolition.
None of this was inevitable, and it was certainly unintended. If there is a greater lesson here, it has everything to do with chance and circumstance and the contingency of human affairs. It’s a reminder that in the political realm there are no final victories or permanent defeats. At a time when just such dreams and fears are pushing our politics to dangerous places, this is very much something worth remembering."