The commerce compromise was a compromise reached on import and export taxes, and most importantly, the slave trade. It was finalized after heated debates during the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787. During negotiations, the urban northern states and the southern agricultural slave-owning states realized that some fundamental differences would have to be put aside, even for just a short time, in order to move forward with the Constitution. Hence, the compromise was born.
Commerce Compromise on Imports and Exports
The northern states wanted the federal government to levy import tariffs on finished products coming into the country to protect against foreign competition and to encourage the southern states to purchase goods made in the North. They also wanted export taxes on raw materials coming into the U.S. The southern states disagreed, arguing that tariffs on the export of raw materials would hurt their agricultural economy. The commerce compromise permitted tariffs only on imports from foreign countries and not on exports from the U.S. to other countries. Most significantly, this commerce compromise made the regulation of interstate commerce the responsibility of the federal government. All commerce legislation would be regulated by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate.
Commerce Compromise on the Slave Trade
The question of slavery was a divisive issue in the United States even before the official establishment of the federal government. The commerce compromise regarding the slave trade was agreed upon in order to bring the northern and southern states together. At the time Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, there were an estimated 500,000 African slaves in the Colonies. Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and other founding fathers owned hundreds of slaves themselves. African slaves lived primarily in the southern colonies and made up about one-fifth of the entire Colonial population and comprised 40 percent of the southern population.
Jefferson called slavery a “hideous blot” on America. Washington called it "repugnant,” and many Colonists, even some slave owners, hated slavery, too. The problem was that the southern economy relied on agricultural products like tobacco, indigo and rice that were produced by slave labor they could not afford to lose. At one point, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, the three states that still permitted the slave trade threatened to leave the Constitution convention if importing slaves was outlawed.
Two Key Commerce Compromises
To protect their economy and standard of living, the southern states came up with two proposals. The first compromise was to prevent Congress from taxing American exports in order to protect their agricultural trade. The second compromise was a proposal that would forbid the newly formed United States from banning slave importation. Those opposed to slavery argued passionately against it, calling slave trade a moral issue that was dishonorable to the America character. George Mason of Virginia called the business of slave trading “nefarious traffic” and slave owners “petty tyrants.”
However, it became clear that a compromise would have to be reached to move forward as a country. The agreement provided that Congress could not tax exports and that no slave trade laws could be passed until 1808, about 10 years after the convention and ratification of the Constitution. The commerce compromise also included a fugitive slave clause as an additional concession to the southern states, but when the 13th Amendment was passed after the Civil War, the provision requiring fugitive slaves to be returned was eliminated.
The importance of the Commerce Compromise is evident from the that it was included in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. It also tells us that, despite moral principles and lofty ideals of equality, the founding fathers were prepared to do whatever was necessary to keep the country united.
Frances Katz is an attorney who writes about legal issues in business for a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Week, Paste, The Independent and The New York Times. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.