The Three-Fifths Compromise: An Ugly Chapter in the History of our Constitution1
With our nation in the throes of a venomous race for the presidency, I’ve been drawn to a closer look at our Constitution and some of the issues that set the tone for the first 100 years of this country’s history. Continue reading . . .
With our nation in the throes of a venomous race for the presidency, I’ve been drawn to a closer look at our Constitution and some of the issues that set the tone for the first 100 years of this country’s history. I’ve especially enjoyed reading The Constitution: An Introduction, by Michael Stokes Paulsen and his son, Luke Paulsen (New York: Basic Books, 2015).
We should, of course, applaud our founding fathers who sought freedom from oppressive foreign intervention. Men such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and especially James Madison, brilliantly crafted for us the document that still serves as the legal foundation for our republic: the Constitution. But not everything in the Constitution is worthy of praise. Some elements were positively reprehensible. Let me explain.
As you know, our Constitution called for a division of legislative powers between two “houses”: the Senate and the House of Representatives. This is known as bicameralism. It didn’t come easily. Those from states with larger populations sought representation based on the total number of its citizens, while those from less populated states favored equal representation for each state, regardless of size. A compromise was reached.
The House of Representatives would be directly elected by the people every two years. The number of representatives would be based on a state’s population. The Senate would be comprised of two elected officials from each state who would serve six year terms. By the way, just in case you didn’t know, senators were originally elected by the legislatures of each state. It wasn’t until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 that they came to be elected by the general populace.
But an immediate and divisive problem had to be faced. In determining the population of each state, on the basis of which members of the House of Representatives were elected, the question was asked: how would slaves be counted? The solution (an utterly despicable one, you’ll shortly see) was deeply and sadly ironic.
The slaveholding states of the South wanted each slave to count in the population in spite of the fact that these men and women were denied any legal rights as citizens. If the southern states got their way, they would gain far greater representation in the House than those states where slavery was outlawed. The northern states opposed the idea. The tragic irony of the dispute is explained by the Paulsens:
“Thus, somewhat ironically, slave-owners wanted slaves treated as persons – for representation purposes. And the more antislavery North wanted slaves treated as property – for representation purposes – since that was how they were in fact treated by slave-state regimes” (52).
Let me be perfectly clear about this. Although the slave-holding states didn’t regard their slaves as free citizens, they wanted to regard them as persons so that they might gain an edge in the House. The states that opposed slavery and insisted that they be treated as free citizens, wanted to regard them merely as property lest the southern states be granted more representatives in the House. Hypocrisy, you say. Well, yes!
So what did they do? They established The Three-Fifths Compromise. As one who loves this country deeply and is grateful for the Constitution, it is painful to acknowledge that in its original form this document was deeply flawed. The Three-Fifths Compromise said that, when it came to counting the population of a state, to determine both taxation and representation, a slave was regarded as only three-fifths of a person. The compromise worked to the advantage of the slave states as it significantly increased their representation in the House of Representatives. Here it is, as originally found in Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution:
“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 [i.e., slaves].”
Some like to point out that the word “slavery” did not appear in the original Constitution. That is technically true. It appears for the first time in the Thirteenth Amendment adopted in 1865 at the end of the Civil War:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteed citizenship and civil rights for all Americans, while the Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race.
If nothing else, the Three-Fifths Compromise created a horrible incentive for slave-holding states to increase the number of their slaves, for by doing so they could increase their representation in Congress and expand the power of slaveholding states in the Union.
I suppose some might attempt to argue that The Three-Fifths Compromise was expedient and perhaps even necessary to obtain the approval of all states, especially those in the south, of the proposed Constitution. But it still stands as a reprehensible chapter in the history of our country when slavery was officially legal. Others might argue that the North was actually behaving with some measure of honor. After all, their point was that it was wrong for states that treated slaves as property to exploit their presence as a way of gaining greater representation in Congress. But there is no escaping the fact that the North’s decision to recognize a slave as only three-fifths of a person was largely motivated by the desire to limit how many representatives the South could elect.
I should also point out that, although the South used the Three-Fifths Compromise to gain an advantage in the number of representatives in Congress, the North insisted that a state’s fair share of taxes would also count slaves according to the same three-fifths-of-a-person formula. This required slaveholding states to pay more than if slaves were not counted at all.
The self-serving hypocrisy of both the North and the South is inescapable. Those in the north who opposed slavery were equally opposed to any state treating a slave as a citizen in order to gain an advantage in the House. Those in the south who supported slavery were equally opposed to any state counting a slave as merely someone’s property, lest they lose the opportunity to increase their representation in the House. The compromise in which a human being was regarded as less than fully human is reprehensible in either case. To be told that you count for only three-fifths of a person is evil.
The Paulsens make another interesting observation on how this compromise gave the South a distinct advantage in Congress:
“In effect, for every vote of a free citizen in the North, a slaveholder in the South who owned 100 slaves would have the equivalent of sixty votes. Thus, the slave states of the South consistently had one-third more seats in the House than they deserved based on their free population – a huge, distorting advantage that tilted political debates over slavery in Congress decisively in favor of slaveholding interests” (78).
This was especially the case when it came to electing the President. The number of electors for each state was based on the total number of its senators and representatives. So, for example, when it came to voting for President, Virginia had five more votes than Massachusetts, although it had fewer free citizens. “It is no exaggeration to say that this pro-slavery counting advantage consistently tilted presidential elections in favor of Southern, pro-slavery presidents, as well as more pro-slavery Congresses” (79).
It may well be the case that, in the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner from Virginia, defeated President John Adams, an opponent of slavery from the free-state Massachusetts, by virtue of the bonus of electors that came his way by reason of the Three-Fifths Compromise. Say the Paulsens, “it remains a sobering fact that a slave-master, Thomas Jefferson – so commonly regarded as a great expositor of liberty – became President on the strength of the Constitution’s protection of, and electoral reward for, the institution of slavery” (79). All told, southern slaveholders served as President for thirty-two of the country’s first thirty-six years under the Constitution.
I am eternally grateful to God for the fact that I was born and raised in the United States. I love my country. But I’m not blind to its faults or to the evils that were originally embedded in our Constitution. If nothing else, my study has awakened me once more both to the profound evil of slavery and the greatness of Abraham Lincoln and his remarkable accomplishments as president. I hope to have more to say on this in the days to come.