Archive for January, 2011

Slavery, Racism, and the 3/5 Clause

Any time race and the Constitution comes up, it’s almost inevitable that someone involved in the conversation will accuse the Framers of the Constitution of severe racism, and point to the 3/5 Clause as evidence:

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.

“All other persons” clearly referred to slaves.

The accusation is that this clause deemed slaves to be three-fifths of a person, somehow sub-human.

Let’s pick this apart a little, as it should be easy to show that counting slaves in this way was not only the right thing to do, it not only didn’t serve to dehuminize slaves as is so often the charge, it worked to do just the opposite. In fact, not counting them at all would have been the best thing to do.

That sounds pretty crazy, I know. Bear with me though, I completely understand why you would think so.

First of all, let’s consider the nature of representation during the early days of the Republic. Since slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person for the sake of representation and taxation, how did they cast their votes? Did they get five people together to decide how to cast three votes? Hardly! Remember, slaves were considered property by their masters and the governments of the states where they resided. Property didn’t vote then any more than your car can vote now. Blacks weren’t given the vote until the 15th Amendment.

At issue was that pro-slave southern states wanted slaves to count the same as whites for the sake of representation, despite the fact that they were considered property in all other regards. Abolitionists argued that such a practice was absurd, logically fallacious. They argued that if southern states were going to count their slaves as property, but expect representation for them, then all property should be counted: horses, cattle, dogs, tables, chairs, etc. Obviously that wasn’t going to work.

What’s more, if the southern states got their way, and were allowed to count their slaves as people for the sake of representation, they would get more Congressmen in relation to the anti-slave northern states. This boost in representation would ensure perpetual slavery. Most of the Founders were abolitionists though, and saw this as a danger to their efforts to ban slavery entirely.

Had slaves not counted at all, representation in northern, abolitionist states would have been higher, giving them the numbers to pass abolitionist laws through the Congress.

You see, the best thing for the slaves would have been to deny them representation altogether. Again, I know this sounds crazy, but they couldn’t vote anyway. Under the 3/5 clause, they were being given partial representation, but no vote. In essence, they are not being represented at all. In fact, they were being counted in a manner that gave more representation to their adversaries, the slave owners! Their best representation came from Congressmen in other states. Thus they would have been better off not being counted at all for the sake of representation, in order to shift the number of Congressional seats to states that did not have slavery. In fact, in many of the northern, abolitionist states, blacks were given full citizenship, complete with the right to vote! They represented their southern counterparts better than southerners.

3/5 was a compromise that was added to the Constitution to make ratification much more likely.

So next time someone throws out the 3/5 clause as evidence that the Founders were racists, ask them why it was that the slave states (the racists) wanted slaves counted 5/5, and it was the abolitionists that wanted them counted 0/5.