The following false statements are just three examples of inaccurate interpretations of the Three/Fifths Compromise that persist: (1) the 3/5s compromise of 1788 . . . enshrined slavery in the United States Constitution; (2)African Americans in this country were considered only 3/5s human at one point in history; (3) We tried "compromise" and declared blacks to be 3/5s human.
Representation, Not Degree of Humanity
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787. Their original reason for meeting was to revise the Articles of Confederation, which had proved too weak to address the issues that faced the country in its independence from England. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had been convinced that they would have to scrap those Articles and start fresh, and that is what they did.
A controversy arose about how to write the sections on representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. The states with large populations wanted representation based solely on population, while the states with small populations wanted each state to have equal representation. They settled on a solution that would satisfy both large and small-populated states: each state would send two representatives, Senators, to the upper house, and the number of members sent to the lower House of Representatives would be based on population.
Even after this compromise was worked out, another problem still existed. Northern states insisted that counting slaves, who did not vote or pay taxes, would give the South an unfair advantage in representation. Southern slave states, of course, wanted this advantage.
To What Does Three/Fifths Refer?
The compromise that settled this dispute is now called the Three/Fifths Compromise, which stipulates that three/fifths of the slave population would be counted for purposes of representation. Three/fifths does not, nor did it then, designate the degree of humanity that a black person has. The framers of the Constitution did not “enshrine” slavery in that document; they actually used language that would allow for the demise of slavery, which they knew would happen, because they knew slavery was an evil institution.
In Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, the three/fifths compromise is stated:
"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 Number of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." (emphasis added)
The "three fifths of all other Persons" refers to the slave population as whole, not to the humanity of each individual.
The Stain of Inaccuracy
Notice that neither “slavery,” “slaves,” “Negroes,” Blacks, nor any other term is used to designate those in the United States of African descent. The framers of the Constitution knew that the institution of slavery could not endure, but the country urgently needed a government that would provide strong leadership in securing the rights for citizens and a government that would bring unity to the sprawling land.
If those framers had deemed Africans only three/fifths human, they would not have hesitated to write that distinction in their founding document. Some of the framers maintained plantations and owned slaves; thus, they knew that Blacks were fully human. However, it was not feasible to emancipate slaves at the same time they were desperately trying to formulate a document that would govern the country.
Such inaccurate interpretations have stained and strained race relations in Ameica. Much needs to be done to correct the inaccurate information that continues to keep minorities victims of lies and deceit by those who profit from those inaccuracies.
(Acknowledgment: A version of this article appeared on Suite101.com in February 2007.)
For more information:
U. S. Constitution