There is one supreme event that I’d like to have witnessed: the Constitutional Convention, and more specifically the unrecorded deliberations of the Committee of Detail and especially the Committee of Eleven that submitted its report on August 24, 1787. The central issue, which would be resolved only by force of arms in the Civil War, was defined by George Mason of Virginia: it was whether the general government would have the power to “prevent the increase of slavery.” In August it appeared that the convention faced a nonnegotiable conflict over the future of American slavery. We know the bare details about the adoption of the three-fifths compromise, the slave-trade extension clause, and the fugitive-slave clause. But we know very little about the actual deals made or the meanings attached to such crucial words as migration, commerce, importation , and such persons .
As an inside witness at Philadelphia I could easily test Staughton Lynd’s hypothesis that a secret bargain was struck by the two deliberative bodies: the North winning the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest in exchange for the three-fifths representation of slaves. Despite all that has been written on the subject, these agreements, which ran counter to so many vital regional interests, are still the greatest mystery in American history. They go far beyond the somewhat limited issue of black slavery. An understanding of what really went on in Philadelphia (and possibly New York) would enrich our understanding of negotiated compromise between irreconcilable forces—clearly an issue of continuing importance. It would also tell us much about the nature of the federal Union and the validity of conflicting interpretations that led to America’s greatest internal crisis.