There’s a short, and now irrelevant, section in the Constitution that politically motivated people love to distort. That section is called the Three-Fifths Clause, found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution:
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.
During the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, delegates agreed that representation to Congress would be determined by population. This agreement brought about the questions of, how do we define population? Should only free people be counted? Should slaves be counted? The answer to this question was resolved in what is now called the Three-Fifths Compromise.
The federalistpapers.org describe the agreement as follows:
The Three-Fifths Compromise was an agreement between southern and northern states in which three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted for enumeration purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives.
Critics of Conservative policy relish in this agreement and falsely point out that our founding fathers considered blacks as only three-fifths of a human being. They use this distortion to criticize the Constitution and say things like, “See! Our founders didn’t even consider a black man fully human! The Constitution is racist! These Conservatives only support racist policies!” Statements like these are totally false and should be challenged.
The reality is, there was slavery in North America long before our Constitution was written. It wasn’t something our founders voluntarily chose to bring into this country; instead it was an existing problem they had to resolve if they were going to have any chance of ratifying the Constitution.
If each slave was counted into the population, then southern states would have increased their representation in the House of Representatives by over 50 percent. So as hypocritical as it sounds, the slave owners were all for the slaves being counted as people – because that gave them more power in the legislature.
The northern states obviously opposed this. Not necessarily because northern politicians cared so much about slaves, but because of the balance of power in the House of Representatives was at stake.
To reconcile the north and south divide, the delegates agreed on a legislative compromise that resulted in the Three-Fifths Clause in the Constitution. Three-fifths was not the value of a person, but a way of counting the population for representation and tax distribution. The compromise was about counting slaves and not black individuals. Free blacks living in the north were counted as a single person.
Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1865), the Three-Fifths Clause was rendered moot. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1868) later superseded Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3. It specifically states that “Representatives shall be apportioned …counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”
The next time your crazy liberal uncle calls you a racist because you support the Constitution, ask him to open a history book and study the story behind the text. You may need to direct him to the local library since he most likely only knows how to read the Huffington Post and New York Times.
- Bailey, Bill “The Truth About the Three-Fifths Clause.”Thefederalistpapers.org, 19 Jul. 2011. Web. 23 Jul. 2015
- Kent, Chad. ” Constitution Revolution: How Could Anyone Defend the Three-Fifths Clause?.” Theblaze.com , 9 May 2015. Web. 23 Jul. 2015.