American History Told by Contemporaries

Author: John Adams  | Date: 1850

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U.S. History

Difficulties in Framing Articles of Confederation (1776)


[July 30, 1776.]

CHASE. Moves that the word "white," should be inserted in the eleventh Article. The negroes are wealth. Numbers are not a certain rule of wealth. It is the best rule we can lay down. Negroes a species of property, personal estate. If negroes are taken into the computation of numbers to ascertain wealth, they ought to be, in settling the representation. The Massachusetts fisheries, and navigation, ought to be taken into consideration. The young and old negroes are a burthen to their owners. The eastern Colonies have a great advantage in trade. This will give them a superiority. We shall he governed by our interests, and ought to be. If I am satisfied in the rule of levying and appropriating money, I am willing the small Colonies should have a vote.

Wilson. If the war continues two years, each soul will have forty dollars to pay of the public debt. It will be the greatest encouragement to continue slave-keeping, and to increase it, that can be, to exempt them from the numbers which are to vote and pay. Slaves are taxables in the Southern Colonies. It will be partial and unequal. Some Colonies have as many black as white; these will not pay more than half what they ought. Slaves prevent freemen from cultivating a country. It is attended with many inconveniences.

Lynch. If it is debated, whether their slaves are their property, there is an end of the confederation. Our slaves being our property, why should they be taxed more than the land, sheep, cattle, horses, &c.?

Freemen cannot be got to work in our Colonies; it is not in the ability or inclination of freemen to do the work that the negroes do. Carolina has taxed their negroes; so have other Colonies their lands.

Dr. Franklin. Slaves rather weaken than strengthen the State, and there is therefore some difference between them and sheep; sheep will never make any insurrections.

Rutledge. I shall be happy to get rid of the idea of slavery. The slaves do not signify property; the old and young cannot work. The property of some Colonies is to be taxed, in others, not. The Eastern Colonies will become the carriers for the Southern; they will obtain wealth for which they will not be taxed.

August 1. Hooper. North Carolina is a striking exception to the general rule that was laid down yesterday, that the riches of a country are in proportion to the numbers of inhabitants. A gentleman of three or four hundred negroes don’t raise more corn than feeds them. A laborer can’t be hired for less than twenty-four pounds a year in Massachusetts Bay. The net profit of a negro is not more than five or six pounds per annum. I wish to see the day that slaves are not necessary. Whites and negroes cannot work together. Negroes are goods and chattels, are property. A negro works under the impulse of fear, has no care of his master’s interest.

Article 17. Dr. Franklin moves that votes should be in proportion to numbers. Mr. Middleton moves that the vote should be according to what they pay.

Sherman thinks we ought not to vote according to numbers. We are representatives of States, not individuals. States of Holland. The consent of every one is necessary. Three Colonies would govern the whole, but would not have a majority of strength to carry those votes into execution. The vote should be taken two ways; call the Colonies, and call the individuals, and have a majority of both.

Dr. Rush. Abbé Raynal has attributed the ruin of the United Provinces to three causes. The principal one is, that the consent of every State is necessary; the other, that the members are obliged to consult their constituents upon all occasions. We lose an equal representation; we represent the people. It will tend to keep up colonial distinctions. We are now a new nation. Our trade, language, customs, manners, don’t differ more than they do in Great Britain. The more a man aims at serving America, the more he serves his Colony. It will promote factions in Congress and in the States; it will prevent the growth of freedom in America; we shall be loth to admit new Colonies into the confederation. If we vote by numbers, liberty will be always safe. Massachusetts is contiguous to two small Colonies, Rhode Island and New Hampshire; Pennsylvania is near New Jersey and Delaware; Virginia is between Maryland and North Carolina. We have been too free with the word independence; we are dependent on each other, not totally independent States. Montesquieu pronounces the confederation of Lycia, the best that ever was made; the cities had different weights in the scale. China is not larger than one of our Colonies; how populous! It is said that the small Colonies deposit their all; this is deceiving us with a word. I would Rot have it understood that I am pleading the cause of Pennsylvania; when I entered that door, I considered myself a citizen of America.

Dr. Witherspoon. Representation in England is unequal. Must I have three votes in a county, because I have three times as much money as my neighbor? Congress are to determine the limits of Colonies.

G. Hopkins. A momentous question; many difficulties on each side; four larger, five lesser, four stand indifferent. Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, make more than half the people.

Connecticut, New York, two Carolinas, not concerned at all. The disinterested coolness of these Colonies ought to determine. I can easily feel the reasoning of the larger Colonies; pleasing theories always gave way to the prejudices, passions, and interests of mankind. The Germanic Confederation. The King of Prussia has an equal vote. The Helvetic confederacy. It can’t be expected that nine Colonies will give way to be governed by four. The safety of the whole depends upon the distinctions of Colonies.

Dr. Franklin. I hear many ingenious arguments to persuade us that an unequal representation is a very good thing. If we had been born and bred under an unequal representation, we might bear it; but to set out with an unequal representation, is unreasonable. It is said the great Colonies will swallow up the less. Scotland said the same thing at the union.

Dr. Witherspoon rises to explain a few circumstances relating to Scotland; that was an incorporating union, not a federal; the nobility and gentry resort to England.

In determining all questions, each State shall have a weight, in proportion to what it contributes to the public expenses of the United States.

August 2. "Limiting the bounds of States, which by charter, &c. extend to the South Sea."

Sherman thinks the bounds ought to be settled. A majority of States have no claim to the South Sea. Moves this amendment to be substituted in place of this clause, and also instead of the fifteenth article;—"No lands to be separated from any State, which are already settled, or become private property."

Chase denies that any Colony has a right to go to the South Sea.

Harrison. How came Maryland by its land, but by its charter? By its charter, Virginia owns to the South Sea. Gentlemen shall not pare away the Colony of Virginia. Rhode Island has more generosity than to wish the Massachusetts pared away. Delaware does not wish to pare away Pennsylvania.

Huntington. Admit there is danger from Virginia, does it follow that Congress has a right to limit her bounds? The consequence is, not to enter into confederation. But as to the question of right, we all unite against mutilating charters. I can’t agree to the principle. We are a spectacle to all Europe. I am not so much alarmed at the danger from Virginia as some are; my fears are not alarmed; they have acted as noble a part as any. I doubt not the wisdom of Virginia will limit themselves. A man’s right does not cease to be a right, because it is large; the question of right must be determined by the principles of the common law.

Stone. This argument is taken up upon very wrong ground. It is considered as if we were voting away the territory of particular Colonies, and gentlemen work themselves up into warmth upon that supposition. Suppose Virginia should. The small Colonies have a right to happiness and security; they would have no safety if the great Colonies were not limited. We shall grant lands, in small quantities, without rent or tribute or purchase-money. It is said that Virginia is attacked on every side. Is it meant that Virginia shall sell the lands for their own emolument? All the Colonies have defended these lands against the King of Britain, and at the expense of all. Does Virginia intend to establish quit rents? I don’t mean that the United States shall sell them, to get money by them.

Jefferson. I protest against the right of Congress to decide upon the right of Virginia. Virginia has released all claims to the land settled by Maryland, &c.

John Adams, Works (edited by Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850), II, 496–502.


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Chicago: John Adams, "Difficulties in Framing Articles of Confederation (1776)," American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Charles Francis Adams in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 539–543. Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2022,

MLA: Adams, John. "Difficulties in Framing Articles of Confederation (1776)." American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Charles Francis Adams, Vol. II, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 3, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 539–543. Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Adams, J, 'Difficulties in Framing Articles of Confederation (1776)' in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. . cited in 1902, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York, pp.539–543. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2022, from