The Quartet: A Review

What if the Constitution Had Not Compromised on Slavery?

The Quartet: Orchestrating The Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. 

With 20-20 hindsight, history teaches us that the immoral compromise over slavery, made in order to ratify our Constitution, led inevitably to a Civil War, which made us pay for our past mistakes with the blood of our citizens. What is missing from our history books is an appreciation for how unlikely it was that our Constitution was even created. Joseph Ellis makes a convincing case that the citizens of the newly freed States were in no mood to form a centralized, national government at all. Tired of war and tyranny, by distant powers, the people were suspicious of any attempt to regulate the States by a federal government. They were, by all accounts, content with the dysfunctional and ineffective Articles of Confederation. What was more likely was that the States would go their own way, ignore their debts to Europe and England (the Treaty of Paris obligated the new nation to repay its loans to individual lenders and banks), and even wages due to their own soldiers. Ellis’ book shows how four men (Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay) maneuvered and cajoled the political process to force a vote on a Constitutional Republic, with built in checks and balances, which preserved States’ rights and Federal competence. It is a marvelous book, which needs only a little bit of editing to remove some repetitive material. It appears to have been pieced together from separate lectures that covered some common ground. Aside from that, it is a fascinating look at what we now consider as inevitable, which was hardly inevitable at all; namely, the United States of America. I highly recommend this book as both a good read and an antidote to our ignorance on the fragile compromise that allowed the Constitution to be created and ratified in the first place.

But what if the Constitution had not been ratified? Ellis points out that the southern States all were dependent upon an agricultural economy, which was ingloriously dependent upon slave labor. While men of conscience from the North railed against this immoral evil, without a compromise on the issue of slavery, the Constitution would never have been ratified. The Southern States would not have joined. There would have been no United States, but a loose confederation of States which may eventually have gone to war with one another over land claims and other disputes. The Confederation may have devolved into a European style competition between small countries, like France and England. It was not that men of conscience did not oppose the evil in Congress.

Luther Martin of Maryland denounced slavery as “an odious bargain with sin, inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character.” Gouverneur Morris pronounced slavery “a curse” – p. 145. 

And John Adams was well known for his opposition. But without slavery, the Southern delegates buy real believed they could not survive, and most of those delegates owned slaves themselves.The compromise to allow slavery, but only count them as 3/5ths of a person, was a compromise made to limit the voting power of the Southern States in the House of Representatives. If counted as full persons, it would have given the South much greater representation in the House and increased the influence of slavery. The compromise, a deal with the devil, was made, and allowed the Constitution to be accepted and ratified by all Thirteen States.


No one is now happy about this bargain with sin, but we all recognize that the Constitution would not have been ratified without it. Some people suggest it would have been better for the Constitution never to have been ratified and the country never created. But what if it had not? It could be argued that it would have been worse for the issue of slavery, and slavery still might have been an issue today. Why? The issue is the land claims of the Southern States, especially Virginia. Virginia’s land clams included Ohio and Michigan! Slavery would have extended westward and northward, effectively locking in the New England and Northern states to a small portion of the continent.


In order to form a federal government, Virginia and then the other Southern States, surrendered claims to Ohio and the West (p. 74ff and 88ff). If they had not done that, but had resisted, these states would have gained much more power both politically and economically as their populations increased while the North was locked in place. The likelihood of a civil war over slavery looks almost impossible. The North would not have the votes in Congress, Lincoln would never have been elected, there would have been no Missouri Compromise to limit slave expansion in the West. The only way slavery would have ended was from some internal change or revolt. The possibility is that the machine age would have made slavery uneconomical, but without a Supreme Court or a 14th Amendment to secure the rights of all people, there would have been no incentive in the great Southern Empire, to grant equality or rights to the former slave population.

Doubtless the North American States would have shied away from World War One and Two, and perhaps the Southern coalition would even have sided with Nazi Germany because of racial sympathies. But these counterfactuals require modal knowledge, which we don’t have. The only seeming certainty is that the short term compromise with evil in ratification of the Constitution eventually led to the elimination of slavery and the establishment of the 14th Amendment through the shedding of blood as we fought among ourselves for a greater justice for all. While an intrinsic evil, I would argue that the compromise over slavery in the Constitution eventually led to a better outcome than if there had been no United States of America and no Constitution at all.

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