Colour and the Constitution

Sequent, the AndyPolley of Missouri posts-wise, writes in his Hurricane thread that “the Constitution tells us one black man is 3/5 of a white man”.

Now, I never knew this. So please illuminate me.

The 3/5 rule counted 3 out of every 5 slaves towards population for determining the number of Congressional seats each state was allowed to have.

Someone more knowledgeable will be able to tell you more, but I do believe that it’s seen as a way of limiting the number of people the Southern States could claim in their population, thereby weaking their potential Congressional power.

This is a commonly misunderstood phrase in the Constitution, and one that needs a little historical background. That phrase occcurs in the section of the Constitution specifying how the seats in the House of Representatives shall be apportioned among the states by population. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly refer to “black” persons; it says,

But the reasoning is actually opposite what most people think. When the Constitution was being debated in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the slave states wanted slaves to be as whole persons, since this would give the slave states a greater representation in Congress. The free states did not want slaves counted at all, since the slaves had no political representation whatsoever.

The three-fifths number was thus a compromise between the slave states and the free states.

From the constitution

It’s been years since I studied this, so I’m sure someone can come along soon with more detailed (or correct) answer.

IIRC, this was a compromise between the Northern states with limited slavery and Southern states with more extensive slavery. (And looking back from now, not one of the prettier moments of US history.) The South wanted to preserve slavery and was looking for methods of preserving it.

This “federal ratio” was created by James Madison, one of the Federalists. Discussion

There’s a lot of material out on the net. Google “three fifths of all other Persons.”

An explanation of two other terms in that section of the Constitution. “Those bound to Service for a Term of Years” refers to indentured servants. “Indians not taxed” refers to the fact that Indians who lived among their tribes in the wilderness were legally considered to be citizens of their tribes, not of the United States, and so were not subject to U.S. taxes.

So it’s a little mischievous to extrapolate from this document that needs, like all documenst, to be read and understood in its context, that “the Constitution tells us one black man is 3/5 of a white man”.

“and excluding Indians not taxed” - so were Indians (as they were known both then and for 200 years subsequently) both unrepresented and unable to stand as representatives?

Since black people are now “free”, I assume they count towards representation. What about Indians/N. Americans who still live on reservations? Are they counted? Regardless whether they pay tax or not (given that loads of folk must fall into that latter category).

Indians who lived among the general population have always been considered citizens of the United States. And since 1922, Indians who lived on tribal reservations or in the wilderness have also been considered U.S. citizens.

Correction: since 1924. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

Thanks (corrigendum noted) - much as I, guided by common sense, expected. I think I get this whole thing. No big deal, taking into account the historical perspective, and allowing, as a whitey, that lots of stuff was swept under the carpet, wished away when actually the FFs could have done a bit better. Adams is still my favourite, by the way. Would like to have met him.

A bit? That’s not exactly a detail…

I don’t think the symbolism of the 3/5 ratio is unimportant - but examining it strictly as a racial issue is quite wrong, since there were free blacks at the time the Constitution was written. Obviously slavery was a racial matter, but it’s quite oversimplistic and factually wrong to imply that the Constitution said a black person is only 60% of a white person (and, indeed, textually, it implies more that 40% of black people weren’t counted while the other 3/5 were.)

He wasn’t a very personable guy (either Adams, father or son, as a matter of fact.) I wouldn’t imagine your conversation would be all that interesting. Personally, I’d love to have lunch with John Marshall.

Note that what the Constitution says is that, for the purposes of both representation and taxes, a slave counts for 3/5’s of a free person. As I understand it, what the slave states wanted was for slaves not to be counted for tax purposes but to be counted for determining the number of Representatives who would be elected from that state. (Remember, there were no income taxes or any other direct federal taxes from most people until 1913. Until then, each state was assessed an amount depending on their population to be paid to the federal government. There were a few other sources of federal income, like taxes on imports.) The non-slave states wanted slaves not to be counted for representation purposes but to be counted for tax purposes. 3/5’s of the slaves’ numbers being counted for both representation and taxes was thus a compromise on both issues.

No, there were direct taxes, at times, before 1913, and they worked by having “each state assessed an amount depending on their population”. The issue first came up when federalists proposed amending the Articles of Confederation to allow the federal government to assess “direct taxes”. Everyone agreed that such taxes should be allocated to the states according to population, but should slaves count as population? At that time, the arguments followed the “stereotypical” breakdown–Southerners against counting slaves as people, Northerners for. The eventual compromise on 3/5 was not so much a rejection of slaves as humans but a back-handed recognition of the lower wealth-producing capacity of slaves as compared to free labor.

Note that the issue of representation never arose under the Articles, because Congress had no proportional representation. The issue became moot with respect to taxes as well when the amendment allowing direct taxes failed of ratification.

The issue was revived in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when it became clear that the new Congress would have proportional representation in at least one house and would assess direct taxes. As you say, Southerners would have preferred a full count of slaves for representation and no count at all for taxes. They recognized that this wasn’t a very defensible position, however, and carrying over the earlier 3/5 figure for both purposes proved to be the path of least resistance.

Direct taxes in the form of federal property taxes were assessed during the 1798-1801 Naval War with France, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. They were calculated so that property tax rates (for example) per acre on land might be very different in Rhode Island versus South Carolina, so that the overall contribution from each state would be in proportion to its population as adjusted by the 3/5 rule.

Since it doesn’t appear to have been mentioned in this thread, I’ll note that the 3/5 clause was repealed by the Fourteenth Amendment:

Freddy the Pig writes:

> No, there were direct taxes, at times, before 1913, and they worked by
> having “each state assessed an amount depending on their population”.

Excuse me, but what do you mean by “direct taxes”? What I meant was that before 1913 there didn’t exist anything like income taxes, where each individual citizen of the U.S. would have to fill a form in which they would have to declare something, like their annual income, and then would have to send this form and the appropriate amount of money directly to the federal government. What existed then (as I understand it) was that the federal government would assess each state an amount of money which depended on their population. The state would raise that money in whatever way it chose. In general, no money went directly from the citizens to the federal government. Is this not what happened?

Note that Sequent was pitted for it by the venerable Zev.

No, with rare exceptions, pre-1913 federal taxes didn’t work that way. Such taxes included excises on liquor, salt, and other goods; tariffs; and (during and immediately after major wars) property taxes. The latter were construed by the Supreme Court to be “direct taxes” and had to be apportioned by population. (See here for a synopsis about what constitutes a “direct tax”.)

Even when property taxes were apportioned among the states, however, a state didn’t “raise the money in whatever way it chose”. Federal law specified which property would be taxed and at what level, with the levels adjusted by states to make the totals proportionate to population. The property tax law during the War of 1812 allowed the states to subtitute some other tax if they thought it would be less burdensome for their citizens, but I don’t know whether any did so.

Since the coming of the federal income tax, Congress has lost interest in property taxes. In the extremely unlikely event that Congress were to revive such a tax today, it would still need to be apportioned by population. With all of us being “free person” today, however, the 3/5 clause would happily no longer have any effect.

Don’t go dragging my good name through the mud.

Are you baiting me? roger, I challenge you to a duel!


Henry Adams, OTOH…

I have too much respect for mud to dream of doing that.

I was merely conducting a little experiment to see how long it wd take you to do your vanity search. Of course, it didn’t take half as long as you wish to give the impression by delaying your response. Did you save it as a Word doc overnight?

A duel, eh? I seem to recall that a couple of the FFs tried that, and it didn’t turn out very well. Perhaps a stale bagel (very over-rated food in my opinion - I’ll opt for that) against a cheesesteak?