Federalist No.54

The Apportionment Of Members Among The States

Tuesday, February 12, 1788

James Madison


The subject of this Federalist Paper is more of historical interest rather than of practical application in modern America, since it regards the question of slaves and representation in the House of Representatives.


Madison links the issue of representation and taxes in this paper. The number of people in each State should be the standard for regulating the representation of each State in the House of Representatives, just as the degree of wealth should be the measure of taxes paid by a State. This is a basic guiding principle from which he starts.


The problem arises in the classification of slaves: as people, even though they have no free status, or as property, which they surely are, since they can be bought and sold, and compelled to labour for the benefit of their owners.


The underlying tension that this paper reveals is that the interests of Northern States were not the same as Southern States that relied upon a slave economy. At the end of this paper Madison acknowledges the need for a compromise in determining the status of slaves, since States may be motivated to inflate their population numbers for the census if some compromise were not reached. But the real issue seems to be whether the Southern States would have any reason to participate in the new nation if they felt disadvantaged by it:

Could it be reasonably expected, that the Southern States would concur in a system, which considered their slaves in some degree as men, when burdens were to be imposed [for the purposes of taxation], but refused to consider them in the same light, when advantages were to be conferred [representation].

To me, this hints at some of the tensions between South and North which were to contribute to the Civil War just over 70 years later; a war which was not just about freeing slaves but about the economic regulation by the North over the South.


The compromise that Madison accepts is that slaves would count as two fifths of the man when determining population for the purposes of representation.


To justify this compromise, Madison offers the argument of a putative Southerner, a kind of Southerner everyman, who offers several reasoned arguments:


While Madison concedes that some of his Southerner’s arguments may appear to be a little strained in some points, he nevertheless says that the arguments fully reconciles me to the scale of the representation which the convention have established.


For me, I find it interesting that Madison’s Southern brethren admits to the compromising expedient of this solution. Moreover, that Madison feels compelled to put the arguments into the mouth of another in the first place, rather than own them directly. Madison is known to have expressed conflicting moral positions regarding slavery, and this paper suggests a man morally conflicted over the issue; one who felt compelled to at least distance himself from it through his Southern advocate; who did not address the exact nature of his argument, even, in the title of his paper.

17 October 2019