Emory University President James Wagner penned a recent column that touched upon the “three-fifths” clause in the Constitution, and although the circumstance in which he referenced it sparked some indignation, it’s important to understand the purpose of that compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths a person for purposes of taxation and Congressional representation.
Many believe the compromise renders the Constitution a fundamentally racist and pro-slavery document. Although counting anyone three-fifths a person is morally reprehensible, understood in context, it is not.
At first, the proposed clause dealt solely with representation. Southerners wanted to protect slave labor, as it propelled a large part of their economy. Consequently, they favored counting slaves as full persons, which would increase their influence in Congress. Northerners, who opposed the expansion of slavery, did not want to count slaves at all, hoping that the pernicious institution’s growth would halt. As debate stalled, Governor Morris devised a middle ground, by adding the requirement that “taxation shall be in proportion to representation.” This measure placated both sides, securing passage of the three-fifths compromise. Notes Constitutional scholar Erik Jensen:
Slaves were to be counted as less than whites for representation, which was not in the interests of the South. Slaves were, however, also to be counted as less than whites for measuring a state’s apportioned direct-tax liability, and that was a benefit to the South.
Importantly, rather than define slaves as property, as was done in Southern states, the Constitution recognized them as “persons.” Thus, although too explosive an issue to fully confront and eradicate at the inception of our fragile republic, the Constitution rendered inescapable the proposition that blacks deserve the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee that “all men are created equal.”
No one understood this more clearly than the 19th century former-slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who articulated that “the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery;” and also challenged that, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document … I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”
Counting anyone as three-fifths a person is disgraceful, but pointing to the clause as proof of an inherently racist and pro-slavery Constitution lacks historical perspective and ignores context.