America’s Long Journey: Three-fifths of a man

Three-fifths of a man

It was spelled out in the first sentence of the second section of the Constitution’s first article: “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.”

In other words, whites, whether indentured or free, would be counted one for one, but black slaves would also be counted, and 60% of their number would be added to the total for whites in the state where they were living.

The idea was logically absurd, and it had consequences that extended over three-quarters of a century – which of course means that it affected our entire national life, past, present and future – and we’d have been better off if it had never been agreed to. The only thing is, there was no choice. It was accept the three-fifths rule, or no deal.

No deal meant no new Constitution, which, under the circumstances, probably meant the loss of the last chance for the former colonies to construct a common government that would have enough strength to maintain itself. In effect, if no deal, no common future. And if the 13 former colonies once became balkanized, who could believe that they would ever again have a chance to come together?

Just as in the Continental Congress a dozen years before, when the need for unanimity allowed South Carolina to block proposals to end slavery, so in the Constitutional convention, practical politics mandated the compromise. The alternative was to let the fledgling nation split into north and south, neither of which would have been viable for long.

But the consequences weren’t negligible.

Historian Garry Wills pointed out, in The Negro President, that the defeated Federalists in 1801 were calling Jefferson the Negro President. Why? Because, without the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, what Jefferson called the second revolution wouldn’t have taken place, and Adams would have been re-elected. That’s the only presidential election that was swung by the three-fifths clause, but slaver-holder over-representation affected plenty more than that, from 1789 right down to the secession winter of 1860-61. Among the consequences Wills counted were these. Without the Constitutionally mandated over-representation of slave-owners, the following votes would have been reversed:

  • Admission of Missouri as a slave state.
  • Approval of Jackson’s policy of Indian removal.
  • Repeated failure of the Wilmot Proviso banning slavery from the territories acquired after the Mexican War.
  • Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

And as we have seen, the indirect effects were even wider. Southerners dominated the Democratic Party, which meant that even in the North, for a politician to rise above a certain level, he had to be acceptable – or at least not objectionable — to the slave power. They came to take dominance of the federal government as their right. A lot of consequences. But even after that passage of more than 200 years, we have to ask: What choice did the makers of the Constitution have? “All or nothing” is not statesmanship, but a recipe for chaos. Politics, as has been said, is the art of the possible.

But massive European immigration into the Northern states changed the equation. (What immigrant in his right mind would move to an area where his labor had to compete with slave labor?) Southerners were soon outnumbered in the House regardless of the federal ratio. With the admission of California in 1850, they were outvoted in the Senate. When the slave power saw that the North would soon be able to elect an executive without Southern votes, it began to think about withdrawal from the Union, and in 1860, it tried secession. Only after four years of Civil War and 600,000 deaths was slavery, and thus the three-fifths rule, overturned.

That’s a lot of consequences, but there were more. Wills quotes Leonard Richards: “In the sixty-two years between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means [Committee] for forty-two years. The only men to be reelected President – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson – were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker’s chair the longest – Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon – were slaveholders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were slaveholders.”

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.