The blazing South Carolinian sun beats down on your lash-scarred back. It’s noon, and the promise of shade and rest is hours away. You have little idea what day it is. Nor does it matter. It’s hot. It was hot yesterday. It will be hot tomorrow.
There is less cotton clinging to the sharp plants than there was this morning, but an ocean of white remains to be harvested. You think about running. Dropping your tools and making for the woods. But the overseer is watching you from a horse, ready to bolt and beat the slightest dreams of freedom from the mind of anyone who dares believe in a different future.
You don’t know it, but hundreds of miles to the north, in Philadelphia, some thirty White men are talking about you. They’re trying to decide if you’re worthy enough to be counted in your state’s population.
Your masters think yes, because it would give them more power. But their opponents think no, for the very same reason.
To you, it doesn’t matter much. You’re a slave today, and you’ll be a slave tomorrow. Your child is a slave, and all their children will be too.
Eventually, this paradox that is slavery existing in a society that claims “equality for all!” will force itself to the forefront of American thought — creating a crisis of identity that will define the nation’s history — but you don’t know that.
To you, nothing will change in your lifetime, and the conversations taking place in Philadelphia are creating laws confirming that fact, enshrining your position as a slave into the fabric of an independent United States.
Someone on the other side of the field starts singing. After the first verse, you join in. Soon, the whole field rings with music.
The chorus makes the afternoon move a bit quicker, but not quick enough. The sun blazes on. The future of this new country is being determined without you.
What Was the Three Fifths Compromise?
The Three-Fifths Compromise was an agreement made in 1787 by the delegates of the Constitutional Convention saying that three-fifths of a state’s slave population would count towards its total population, a number which was used for determining representation in Congress and the tax obligations of each state.
The result of the compromise was Article 1 Section 2 of the US Constitution, which reads:
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.US Senate
The language “including those bound to service for a term of years” referred specifically to indentured servants, who were more prevalent in the North — where there was no slavery — than in the South.
Indentured servitude was a form of bonded labor in which a person would give a set number of years of service to someone else in exchange for paying a debt. It was common during colonial times and was often used as a means of paying the expensive voyage from Europe to America.
This agreement was one of the many compromises to come from the meeting of the delegates in 1787, and while its language is certainly controversial, it helped the convention move forward and made it possible for the Constitution to become the official charter of the US government.
Why Was the Three-Fifths Compromise Necessary?
Since the framers of the US Constitution saw themselves writing a new version of government into existence that was built on the equality, natural liberty, and inalienable rights of all human beings, the Three-Fifths Compromise seems rather contradictory.
Yet when we consider the fact that most of these same men — including so-called “legendary freedom defenders” and future presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — were slave owners, it starts to make a bit more sense why this contradiction was tolerated the way it was: they simply didn’t care that much.
However, this agreement, while dealing directly with the issue of slavery, was not needed because the delegates present in Philadelphia in 1787 were divided over the issue of human bondage. Instead, they were divided over the issue of power.
This proved to make things difficult since the thirteen states hoping to form a union were all dramatically different from one another — in terms of their economies, worldviews, geography, size, and more — but they recognized that they needed one another to assert their independence and sovereignty, especially in the wake of the American Revolution, when freedom was still vulnerable.
This common interest did help to create a document that brought the nation together, but the differences among the states influenced the nature of it and had a powerful impact on what life would be like in a newly-independent United States.
The Origins of The Three-Fifths Clause: The Articles of Confederation
For those curious about the seeming randomness of the “three-fifths” stipulation, know that the Constitutional Convention was not the first time this notion was proposed.
It first came up during the early years of the republic, when the United States was operating under the Articles of Confederation, a document created in 1776 that established a government for the newly-independent United States of America.
Specifically, this notion of “three-fifths” emerged in 1783, when the Confederation Congress was debating how to determine the wealth of each state, a process that would also determine each of their tax obligations.
The Confederation Congress could not levy direct taxes on the people. Instead, it required the states to contribute a certain amount of money to the general treasury. It was then up to the states to tax residents and collect the money required of them by the Confederation government.
Not surprisingly, there was quite a bit of disagreement over how much each state would owe. The original proposal on how to do this called for:
“All charges of war & all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence, or general welfare, and allowed by the United States assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several colonies in proportion to the number of inhabitants of every age, sex & quality, except Indians not paying taxes, in each colony, a true account of which, distinguishing the white inhabitants, shall be triennially taken & transmitted to the Assembly of the United States.”US Archives
Once this notion was introduced, a debate raged about how slaves should be included in this number.
Some opinions suggested that slaves should be wholly included because the tax was meant to be levied on wealth, and the number of slaves a person owned was a measure of that wealth.
Other arguments, though, were grounded on the idea that slaves were in fact property, and, as Samuel Chase, one of the representatives from Maryland, put it, “should not be considered members of the state more than cattle.”
Proposals to resolve this debate called for counting half of the slaves of a state or even three quarters towards the total population. James Madison eventually proposed counting three-fifths of all slaves, and while this was agreeable enough to be brought to a vote, it failed to be enacted.
But this issue of whether to count slaves as people or property remained, and it would appear again less than ten years later when it became clear the Articles of Confederation could no longer serve as the framework for the US government.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Clash of Competing Interests
When the delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island did not attend) met in Philadelphia, their original goal was to amend the Articles of Confederation. Although designed to bring them together, the weakness of this document denied the government two key powers needed to build a nation — the power to levy direct taxes and the power to build and maintain an army — leaving the country weak and vulnerable.
However, soon after the meeting, the delegates realized amending the Articles of Confederation would not be enough. Instead, they needed to create a new document, which meant building a new government from the ground up.
With so much at stake, reaching an agreement that stood a chance of being ratified by the states meant the many competing interests would need to find a way to work together. But the problem was that there weren’t just two opinions, and states often found themselves as allies in one debate and adversaries in others.
The main factions that existed at the convention were large states vs. small states, North vs. South, and East vs. West. And in the beginning, the small/large divide nearly brought the assembly to a close without an agreement.
Representation and the Electoral College: The Great Compromise
The large state versus small state fight broke out early on in the debate, when the delegates were working to determine the framework of the new government. James Madison proposed his “Virginia Plan,” which called for three branches of government — executive (the president), legislative (Congress), and judicial (the Supreme Court) — with the number of representatives each state had in Congress determined by population.
This plan received support from delegates looking to create a strong national government that would also limit the power of any one person or branch, but it was primarily supported by larger states since their larger populations would allow them more representatives in Congress, which meant more power.
Smaller states opposed this plan because they felt it denied them equal representation; their smaller population would prevent them from having a meaningful impact in Congress.
Their alternative was to create a Congress where each state would have one vote, no matter the size. This was known as the “New Jersey Plan” and was championed mainly by William Patterson, one of the delegates from New Jersey.
Differing opinions as to which plan was best brought the convention to a halt and put the fate of the assembly in jeopardy. However, Roger Sherman, one of the representatives from Connecticut, stepped in and offered a solution that blended the priorities of both sides.
His proposal, dubbed the “Connecticut Compromise” and later the “Great Compromise,” called for the same three branches of government as Madison’s Virginia Plan, but instead of just one chamber of Congress where votes were determined by population, Sherman proposed a two-chamber Congress made up of a House of Representatives, determined by population, and a Senate, in which each state would have two senators.
This appeased the small states because it gave them what they saw as equal representation, but what was really a much louder voice in the government. Either way, they felt this structure of government gave them the power they needed to stop bills unfavorable to them from becoming laws, influence they would not have had under Madison’s Virginia Plan.
Reaching this agreement allowed the Convention to move forward, but almost as soon as this compromise was reached, it became clear that there were other issues dividing the delegates.
One such issue was slavery, and just like in the days of the Articles of Confederation, the question was about how slaves should be counted. But this time, it was not about how slaves would impact tax obligations.
Instead, it was about something arguably much more important: their impact on representation in Congress.
And the South, which had — during the Confederation years — opposed counting slaves into the population (since it would have cost them money) now supported the idea (because doing so would grant them something even better than money: power).
The North, seeing this and not liking it one bit, took the opposing view and fought against slaves being counted as part of the population at all.
Once again, slavery had divided the country and exposed the vast divide that existed between Northern and Southern interests, an omen of things to come.
The North vs. The South
After the Great Compromise helped settle the debate between large and small states, it became clear that the differences that existed between the North and the South would be just as difficult, if not more so, to overcome. And it was largely due to the issue of slavery.
In the North, most people had moved on from the use of slaves. Indentured servitude still existed as a way to pay debts, but wage labor was becoming more and more the norm, and with more opportunities for industry, the wealthy class saw this as the best way to move forward.
Many Northern states still had slavery on the books, but this would change in the following decade, and by the early 1800s, all states north of the Mason-Dixon Line (the southern border of Pennsylvania) had banned human bondage.
In the South, slavery had been an important part of the economy since the early years of colonialism, and it was poised to become even more so.
Southern plantation owners needed slaves to work their land and produce the cash crops they exported all over the world. They also needed the slave system to establish their power so that they could hold onto it — a move they hoped would help keep the institution of human bondage “safe.”
However, even in 1787, there were some rumblings hinting of Northern hopes of abolishing slavery. Although, at the time, no one saw this as a priority, as the formation of a strong union amongst the states was far more important from the perspective of the White people in charge.
As the years passed, though, the differences between the two regions would only grow wider due to the dramatic differences in their economies and ways of life.
In normal circumstances, this might not have been a big deal. After all, in a democracy, the whole point is to put competing interests in a room and force them to make a deal.
But because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the South was able to gain an inflated voice in the House of Representatives, and because of the Great Compromise, it also had more of a voice in the Senate — a voice it would use to have a tremendous impact on the early history of the United States.
What Was the Impact of the Three-Fifths Compromise?
Each word and phrase included in the US Constitution is important and has, at one moment or another, guided the course of US history. After all, the document remains the longest-lasting government charter of our modern world, and the framework it lays out has touched the lives of billions of people since it was first ratified in 1789.
The language of the Three-fifths Compromise is no different. However, since this agreement dealt with the issue of slavery, it has had unique consequences, many of which are still present today.
Inflating Southern Power and Widening the Sectional Divide
The most immediate impact of the Three-Fifths Compromise was that it inflated the amount of power the Southern states had, largely by securing more seats for them in the House.
This became apparent in the first Congress — Southern states received 30 of the 65 seats in the House of Representatives. Had the Three-Fifths Compromise not been enacted and had representation been determined by counting only the free population, there would have only been a total of 44 seats in the House, and only 11 of them would have been Southern.
In other words, the South controlled just under half the votes in the House of Representatives thanks to the Three-Fifths Compromise, but without it, it would have controlled just a quarter.
That’s a significant bump, and with the South also managing to control half the Senate — as the country at the time was split between free and slave states — it had even more influence.
So it’s easy to understand why they fought so hard to have the entire slave population included.
Combined, these two factors made Southern politicians much more powerful in the US government than they really had any right to be. Of course, they could have freed slaves, given them the right to vote, and then used that expanded population to gain more influence over the government using an approach that was significantly more moral…
But remember, these guys were all super racist, so that wasn’t really in the cards.
To take things one step further, consider that these slaves — who were being counted as part of the population, albeit only three-fifths of it — were denied every possible form of freedom and political participation. Most weren’t even allowed to learn to read.
As a result, counting them sent more Southern politicians to Washington, but — because slaves were denied the right to participate in government — the population these politicians represented was actually a rather small group of people known as the slaveholder class.
They were then able to use their inflated power to promote slaveholder interests and make the issues of this small percentage of American society a big part of the national agenda, limiting the ability of the federal government to even begin addressing the heinous institution itself.
In the beginning, this didn’t matter so much, as few saw ending slavery as a priority. But as the nation expanded, it was forced to confront the issue over and over again.
The South’s influence on the federal government assisted in making this confrontation — especially as the North grew in numbers and increasingly saw halting slavery as important for the nation’s future — continually difficult.
Several decades of this intensified things, and eventually led the United States into the deadliest conflict in its history.
A Parallel Narrative in US History?
The significant inflation of Southern power that came from this clause in the US Constitution has led many historians to wonder how history would have played out differently had it not been enacted.
Of course, this is mere speculation, but one of the most prominent theories is that Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president and a symbol of the early American Dream, may never have been elected if it weren’t for the Three-Fifths Compromise.
This is because the US president has always been elected through the Electoral College, a body of delegates that forms every four years with the sole purpose of choosing a president.
In the College, each state had (and still has) a certain number of votes, which is determined by adding the number of senators (two) to the number of representatives (determined by population) from each state.
The Three-Fifths Compromise made it so that there were more Southern electors than there would have been had slaves not been counted, giving Southern power more influence in presidential elections.
Others have pointed to major events that helped exacerbate the sectional differences that eventually brought the nation to civil war and argue that the outcome of these events would have been considerably different had it not been for the Three-Fifths Compromise.
For exmple, it’s been argued the Wilmot Proviso would have passed in 1846, which would have banned slavery in the territories acquired from the Mexican-American War, making the Compromise of 1850 (passed to settle the issue of slavery in these new territories acquired from Mexico) unnecessary.
It’s also possible the Kansas-Nebraska Act would have failed, helping to avoid the tragedy of Bleeding Kansas — one of the first examples of North-South violence that many consider a warm-up to the Civil War.
However, as mentioned, this is all just speculation, and we should be cautious about making these types of claims. It’s impossible to tell how not including the Three-Fifths Compromise would have changed US politics and how it would have contributed to sectional division.
In general, there is little reason to dwell on the “what ifs” when studying history, but the US was so bitterly divided between North and South during the first century of its history, and the power so evenly divided between their differing interests, it’s interesting to wonder how this chapter would have played out differently had the Constitution not been written to give the South a small but meaningful edge in the distribution of power.
“Three-Fifths of a Person” Racism and Slavery in the US Constitution
While the Three-Fifths Compromise certainly had an immediate influence on the course of the US, perhaps the most startling impact of the agreement stems from the inherent racism of the language, the effect of which is still being felt today.
While Southerners wanted to count slaves as part of their states’ population so that they could get more votes in Congress, Northerners didn’t want them counted because — as in almost all other cases of 18th and 19th century American law — slaves were considered property, not people.
Elbridge Gerry, one of the delegates of Massachusetts, championed this point of view when he asked, “Why, then, should the blacks, who were property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the cattle & horses of the North?”
Some of the delegates, despite owning slaves themselves, did see the contradiction between the “all men are created equal” doctrine that formed the backbone of the American independence movement and the notion that certain people could be considered property simply by the color of their skin.
But the prospect of union between the states was more important than anything, meaning the plight of the Negro was not of much concern to the wealthy, White men who formed the elite political class of the newly-formed United States of America.
Historians point to this type of thinking as proof of the White supremacist nature of the American Experiment, and also as a reminder of how much of the collective myth surrounding the founding of the United States and its rise to power is told from an inherently racist perspective.
This is important because it is not discussed, in most conversations, about how to move forward. White Americans continue to choose ignorance of the reality that the country was built on a foundation of slavery. Ignoring this truth makes it difficult to address the most pressing concerns facing the nation in the present day.
Perhaps former Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, put it best when she said that the original Constitution considered her ancestors to be “three-fifths of a man.”
It’s hard to move forward in a country that still doesn’t recognize this past.
Defenders of the American myth will protest against claims such as those made by Rice, arguing that the context of the time provided justification for the founders’ ways of thinking and their actions.
But even if we excuse them from judgement based on the nature of the historical moment in which they operated, this does not mean they weren’t racists.
We cannot overlook the strong racial undertones of their worldview, and we cannot ignore how these perspectives impacted the lives of so many Americans starting in 1787 and continuing to today.
Time to Build a Nation
Despite the modern controversy over the Three-Fifths Compromise, this agreement wound up being acceptable to the many different parties debating the fate of the nation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Agreeing to it calmed the anger that existed between the North and South, for a time, and it allowed the delegates to finalize a draft which they could then submit to the states for ratification.
By 1789, the document was made the official rulebook of the United States government, George Washington was elected president, and the world’s newest nation was ready to rock and roll and tell the rest of the world it had officially arrived to the party.
References and Further Reading
Ballingrud, Gordon, and Keith L. Dougherty. “Coalitional Instability and the Three‐Fifths Compromise.” American Journal of Political Science 62.4 (2018): 861-872.
Delker, N. E. W. (1995). The House Three-Fifths Tax Rule: Majority Rule, the Framers’ Intent, and the Judiciary’s Role. Dick. L. Rev., 100, 341.
Knupfer, Peter B. The Union As it Is: Constitutional Unionism and Sectional Compromise, 1787-1861. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Madison, James. The constitutional convention: A narrative history from the notes of James Madison. Random House Digital, Inc., 2005.
Ohline, Howard A. “Republicanism and slavery: origins of the three-fifths clause in the United States Constitution.” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History (1971): 563-584.
Wood, Gordon S. The creation of the American republic, 1776-1787. UNC Press Books, 2011.
Vile, John R. A companion to the United States Constitution and its amendments. ABC-CLIO, 2015.