Why the 3/5ths Compromise Was Anti-Slavery

2.2M Views
Jul 23, 2018

Is racism enshrined in the United States Constitution? How could the same Founding Fathers who endorsed the idea that all men are created equal also endorse the idea that some men are not? The answer provided in this video by Carol Swain, former professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, may surprise you.

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The Three-Fifths Compromise is a reminder of the evils of slavery, but it also shows the Framers’ attempts to restrict slave states’ power.

  • Article 1. Section 2. of the U.S. Constitution states, “Representatives… shall be apportioned among the… States… by adding to the whole Number of free Persons... three fifths of all other Persons.”View Source
  • The Three-Fifths Compromise is often cited as evidence that the Framers of the Constitution were racist, rather than seen as a calculated political move devised by opponents of slavery to restrict the power of slave-holding states.View Source
  • Without the Three-Fifths Compromise, the U.S. Constitution would not have been ratified.View Source
  • With the 13th and 14th Amendments, slavery was abolished and every person in the state was represented.View Source

Many of America’s Founders abhorred slavery but conceded that it wasn’t possible to fully abolish it when the Constitution was crafted. 

  • Patrick Henry, describing the context of the Three-Fifths Compromise, said, “As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition.”View Source
  • Slaveholders among the Framers included James Madison and George Washington, while John Adams and Alexander Hamilton did not own slaves.View Source
  • George Washington owned many slaves, but still hoped for abolition. His slaves were freed upon his wife’s death according to his will.View Source
  • Despite owning slaves, many Founders and Framers spoke against it, and hoped it would eventually be abolished.View Source
  • Despite their personal opinions on slavery, the Southern economy was based on slave labor, and the south would never agree to be part of the Union if it was abolished.View Source

The Three-Fifths Compromise was devised by those who opposed slavery, not by those who supported it.

  • The Three-Fifths Compromise was devised by opponents of slavery, not by southern politicians who supported slavery.View Source
  • Contrary to popular claims, the Constitution does not say that a slave is not a person. Black freemen and white freemen were counted as one person, and slaves themselves were referred to as “persons.” However, slave-owning states were only allowed to count three-fifths of their slaves to determine the states’ political influence.View Source
  • The Constitution, which would not have been possible without the Three-Fifths Compromise, laid the groundwork for future abolition of slavery.View Source

Frederick Douglass described the Three-Fifths Compromise as “a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding states.”

  • Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the Three-Fifths Compromise was “a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding states.”View Source
  • The Three-Fifths Compromise was devised by opponents of slavery, not by southern politicians.View Source
  • The Constitution, which would not have been possible without the Three-Fifths Compromise, laid the groundwork for the future abolition of slavery.View Source

Without the Three-Fifths Compromise, the southern states would have held even more political influence in the Union.

  • In the 1790 census, the free states had a population of about 1.8 million free whites. The slave states had about 1.1 million free whites and 633,000 slaves.View Source
  • By the time of the Civil War, the slave population had grown to nearly 4 million.View Source
  • If slave states had been able to count all slaves, rather than three-fifths of them, they would have had much more political power by the time of the Civil War.View Source
  • Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that the Three-Fifths Compromise deprived the southern slave states of “two-fifths of their natural basis of representation.”View Source

Without the Three-Fifths Compromise, there would have been no Union—and slavery in the South would have gone on unchallenged. 

  • The U.S. Constitution required many compromises, but slavery was the most contentious of all the issues.View Source
  • Slavery was not a unique institution to the southern colonies, but the Constitution, which was ratified by the South in part because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, laid the groundwork for its eventual abolition.View Source
  • Without the Three-Fifths Compromise, there would be no Union between the North and South, and slavery in the South would have gone on unchallenged.View Source

One of the most misunderstood clauses in the United States Constitution is found in Article 1, Section 2:

“Representatives… shall be apportioned among the… States… by adding to the whole Number of free Persons... three fifths of all other Persons.”

Known as “the three-fifths compromise,” it raises an obvious question: How could the Founding Fathers who endorsed the idea that all men are created equal also endorse the idea that some men aren’t?

In 2013, James Wagner, President of Emory University, answered the question this way: the three-fifths compromise was an example of difficult, but necessary, political bargaining. Without it, Wagner argued, the northern and southern states would never have agreed to form a single union. No three-fifths compromise; no United States of America.

Many people, including 31 members of his own faculty, vehemently disagreed. Wagner, the faculty members suggested, was excusing the inexcusable. They signed an open letter stating that the three fifths compromise was “an insult to the descendants” of slaves, and an example of “racial denigration.”

So, who’s right?

Let’s look at the text again.

“Representatives… shall be apportioned among the… States… by adding to the whole Number of free Persons... three fifths of all other Persons.”

Note that the Constitution does not say that a slave is not a person; it explicitly says that they are “persons.” And it also does not say that a slave is three-fifths of a person, as many today mistakenly believe. The “three-fifths” description had nothing to do with the human worth of an individual slave, but everything to do with how many representatives each state would have in the U.S. Congress. For that purpose, states could only claim three-fifths of their slave population.

The three-fifths compromise was devised by those who opposed slavery, not by those who were for slavery. Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t the racists of the South who wanted to count slave populations less than white populations – it was the abolitionists of the North.

The framers of the Constitution were deeply divided on the issue of slavery. The free states of the North wanted to abolish it. The slave states of the South wanted to expand it. You might say that the southern slave states wanted to have it both ways: They wanted to count their slaves for the purpose of representation, but they didn’t want to give any representation to their slaves.

Why did this matter?

Let’s look at the numbers.

In the 1790 census, just three years after the Constitution was ratified, the free states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware had a population of about 1.8 million free whites. The slave states of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, had about 1.1 million free whites, and 633,000 slaves. Add those two numbers and you get nearly equal populations between the North and the South.

By the time of the Civil War, the slave population had grown to 4 million. Imagine how much more powerful slave states would have been without the three fifths compromise: If one hundred percent of the slave population had been counted, slavery may very well have lasted into the 20th century.

Why, you might ask, didn’t the North simply insist that the South not count slaves at all? Because the slave states would never have agreed to join the Union. They would have formed their own country, and we would have had two nations—one free and one slave—living side-by-side in conflict from the very start.

The three-fifths compromise was the solution to the most difficult challenge the Framers faced: how to create a single country out of people so divided on a fundamental issue. As discordant as the compromise sounds to modern ears, without it there would have been no United States.

Following his defense of the compromise, Emory president James Wagner issued an apology to his outraged critics, asking forgiveness for his “clumsiness and insensitivity.” As it turns out, Wagner had nothing to apologize for. The three-fifths compromise didn’t deny the humanity of blacks, it affirmed it.

I’m Carol Swain for Prager University.

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