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Constitution Revolution: How Could Anyone Defend the Three-Fifths Clause?

The way our Constitution was originally written, it said that slaves only counted as three-fifths of a person. How could anyone defend a document that says that?

Photo Courtesy of Author.

This post is the continuation of a weekly Constitution Revolution series for TheBlaze.com and TheBlaze Radio’s Chris Salcedo Show. To see last week’s lesson, click here.

This post has been updated.

Even for someone like me who loves the United States and feels very blessed to have been born here, we have to acknowledge that there are some parts of our history and our Constitution that are reprehensible. We can’t hide from that. We have to understand these parts of our history and learn as much as we can from them.

But at the same time, there’s no need to go out of our way to make them out to be worse than they already were.

The Three-Fifths Clause that appears in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution is a perfect example of one of those regrettable parts of our history. Let’s try to put this clause into the proper perspective.

Here is the text of the Three-Fifths Clause:

“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.”

Essentially, this clause explains that the number of representatives that each state was going have in the House of Representatives - and the amount of direct taxes that each state would have to pay - would be determined by population.

But even after the Founders agreed that direct taxes and representation should be based on population, that brings up a huge question: How do you count the population?

Should only free people be counted? Or should it be limited to landowners?

The answers to those questions were incredibly important because they were going to determine who would control Congress. So the debate surrounding this clause was basically just one big power struggle where everyone was trying to get the population counted in the way that would benefit themselves most. The moral questions surrounding slavery were almost completely ignored.

Because of that, it actually ended up going the opposite of how most people would expect.

The southern states would have increased their representation in the House by over 50 percent if slaves would have been counted in the population. So as hypocritical as it sounds (and is), the slave owners were all for the slaves being counted as people - because that gave them more power.

Obviously, the northern states didn’t want the south to have that much power in Congress. So they didn’t want the slaves to be counted at all. After all, the northern states argued, the slave owners kept claiming that these slaves were property, so why should they be counted toward the population?

By now you already know that, in the end, they decided to compromise and have each slave counted as three-fifths of a person when figuring out population numbers.

Photo source: Americans for Prosperity Photo source: Americans for Prosperity 

As much as opponents of the Constitution like to give the impression that this clause is an example of the Founders arbitrarily assigning some kind of moral value to slaves, that’s just not what happened. This debate was all about who was going to control the House of Representatives.

The reality is that there was slavery here in North America long before our Constitution was written. It wasn’t something our Founders voluntarily chose to bring into this country; instead it was an existing problem they had to deal with if they were going to have any chance of getting the Constitution ratified.

Unfortunately, the compromise that was made in the Three-Fifths Clause was probably the only way to get both the northern states and the southern states to agree to the Constitution. Without it, there’s a good chance that the Union would have fallen apart.

Should the northern states have compromised and accepted the Constitution even with the stain of this clause? Or would it have been better if they let the Union dissolve and allowed slavery to continue unrestrained in the south? That is a discussion for another day. For now, all that matters is that the northern states chose to accept this clause in order to save the Constitution.

At this point, I wish I could tell you that a bunch of our Founders stood up and denounced slavery before they reluctantly accepted this compromise because it was necessary to preserve the Union. But I can’t. I haven’t seen any evidence of it. This debate focused almost entirely on each state and each region trying to get as much representation as possible while paying as little in taxes as possible.

Again, as someone who loves this country and our Constitution, that is deeply disappointing. During the debate about this clause in the Philadelphia Convention, Luther Martin and Gouverneur Morris were the only two men who spoke with any real clarity or force about the evils of slavery itself. They should certainly be held up as examples and praised for standing up for what is right in a difficult situation. But they were sadly a very rare exception rather than the rule.

There’s no way around the fact that the Three-Fifths Clause is a shameful part of our nation’s history. And we shouldn’t try to get around it or excuse it. We need to acknowledge that this happened and learn from it.

Slave auction poster

Certainly, this can be a very emotional and difficult topic to discuss, but we can’t allow ourselves to over-react. It is absolutely right and understandable for us to be disturbed by what the Three-Fifths Clause represents, but we would be fools if we used that as an excuse to reject the truth that exists in the rest of the Constitution.

Stop and think about it for a moment.

Does the fact that the Three-Fifths Clause was originally included in the Constitution change the fact that a separation of powers is required to prevent government from getting out of control? No it doesn’t. Does it change the fact that it’s impossible for one centralized government to govern the domestic affairs of a country as big as ours? No it doesn’t.

The concepts in our Constitution - like separation of powers and federalism - are essential to protecting our freedom in the long term. And if we ever choose to implement them, we will have the opportunity to experience a level of freedom and prosperity that most people in the world today couldn’t even imagine.

On the other hand, if we feel like the only way we can fully express our anger towards the Three Fifths Clause is by turning our back on the entire Constitution, we will only end up hurting ourselves.

Chad Kent is an author and speaker with a unique style that makes the Constitution simple and fun. Listen to Chad every Saturday during The Chris Salcedo Show on TheBlaze Radio and visit his web site at www.ChadKentSpeaks.com.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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