The 3/5 Compromise

I’ve just run into one too many mentions of the Three Fifths Compromise that shows that people know about it, but don’t understand what it was, why it was there, and what it accomplished.  So I’m going to rant about it a little bit.

In the U. S. Constitution as ratified, included this in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

“[A]ll other Persons” refers to slaves, while “those bound to Service for a Term of Years” refers to indentured servants.

As this shows up in the form that annoys me, it looks something like this:  “The Constitution as it was originally written says that slaves were just three fifths of a person.”  And this is simply wrong.  It’s not talking about anyone’s relative value — it’s talking about how representation in the House of Representatives would be allocated.  To see why this is there, you have to go back and remember the realities of the early United States.

In the early days, the primary division in the United States was North to South.  Northern states were more industrial and less agricultural than the Southern states, and the agriculture in the Southern states was profitable primarily due to the use of African slaves.  Northern states had higher population densities, especially of white people, than Southern states.  When it came to designing how the legislative branch was to be formed, Northern states preferred a plan where representation was based in population, while Southern states preferred to see all states equally represented.  The Connecticut Compromise ironed this out by creating one house in the legislature which would allocate representation based on population, and the other would give the states equal representation.

But then came the question about how you count the population for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College.  The Northern states didn’t want slaves to count for either purpose, while the Southern states wanted the count of slaves to apply for both — essentially giving more voting power to the owners of the slaves in the running of the Federal Government.  The Three Fifths Compromise basically split the difference between these two plans, allowing states to add three fifths of the count of slaves to their free population count to determine how many Representatives and Electors they would have.

The point of these compromises was that they were required to get the Southern states to join the United States.  It was seen that all the states needed to be unified if the United States were to be viable.  A result of these compromises was that Southern states were over-represented in the government, and a majority of the presidents elected prior to the Civil War were not only southerners, but slave owners, as were justices of the Supreme Court — including the Court that handed down the Dredd Scott decision.  It has been said that the Three Fifths Compromise saved the union in 1788, but forced the Civil War in 1860, and there is certainly merit to that claim.  Removing these advantages from the Southern states was required to force an end to slavery in the US.

And that situation would have been even more disproportionate if slaves had counted 1:1 with the free populations.  Under those circumstances, the likelihood that someone like Abraham Lincoln would have been elected would have been much lower — more likely, all presidents would have been slave owners, and there might have been more slave states formed than free states, giving them even greater political power. Those critical of the Three Fifths Compromise would do well to keep that in mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *