Guest Author - Linda Sue Grimes
A major point of contention was in devising a method that would result in fair representation of each state. The larger states wanted representation based on population, while the small states fought to have each state represented in equal numbers. The compromise resulted in the system we have now: each state sends two senators to the Senate, and the number of representatives sent to the House of Representatives is based of population.
The issue of representation based on population led directly to the so-called “three/fifths compromise,” which counted only three/fifths of the slave population. The North had argued that the slave population should not count, because the slaves did not own property, vote, and pay taxes. The South argued that the slave population should count, which would result in more southern representation in Congress.
The Three/Fifths Ratio Not New
So how did the framers decide on the fraction 3/5 instead of 1/2 or 3/4?
A similar yet reversed situation had occurred a few years earlier in 1783 when an amendment to the Articles of Confederation was being proposed. The issue was taxation and how to determine the taxable value of each state, including population. When considering population and taxation, the result was that the larger the population the more taxes each state would be required to pay.
The North wanted to count all of the slave population, which would result in bigger tax bill for the South, while the South wanted to count none of the slave population. In debating how to resolve this issue, the ratios of 2/3 and 3/4 were suggested, but these ratios did not garner enough support in Congress. Finally, James Madison suggested 3/5, and somehow that seemed to be the magic number.
Failure of the Articles
Despite this useful compromise of three/fifths, the amendment still failed to pass, because unanimous approval was required under the Articles of Confederation. New Hampshire and New York both opposed the amendment.
This failure is only one of many that led to the Constitutional Convention only four years later. The Articles of Confederation as a governing document was so weak that little governing could be done.
So when the issue of counting slave came up again four years later, the number “3/5” that had been deemed acceptable was applied. Instead of taxation however, the issue was representation, and once again each side fought for the number that would enhance its own interests.
For more information:
Articles of Confederation
A version of this article originally appeared on Suite101.com.