The Constitution and 3/5

In this thread, Sequent makes the following comment while ranting about the lack of relief in New Orleans:

I know that Sequent is (as we all are) terribly disturbed about the situation in the South and is probably not thinking through his (her?) thoughts very well.

However, whenever I hear people use the “The Constitution says blacks are only 3/5…” line in racial arguments, it bothers me deeply.

Firstly, of course, this section of the Consitution is moot. You might as well argue that the Constitution says that we should all be dry because the 18th amendment forbids the manufacture or sale of alcoholic drinks.

Secondly, the idea of counting black slaves as a fraction of a person was a good thing. The idea was to reduce the political power of the slave-holding states.

Each state, as everyone knows (or should know) gets a number of representatives in the House. The exact number depends on the population of the state. The larger the population, the larger the representation in the House and (in theory) the more power the state has in the House. The slave-owner states of the South wanted slaves to count as whole people, boosting their population numbers and giving them more political power to preserve the institution of slavery. The Northerners didn’t want to count slaves at all, so as to lessen the power of the Southern states. In the end, they comprimised at the 60% mark.

Therefore, anyone who says that the “3/5 of a person” section in the Constitution is a slap or insult to blacks, or uses it in a manner to suggest that the Constitution suggests that blacks should be treated as less than human is downright wrong. The whole idea was to limit the influence of slavery.

(Yeah, I know this is the Pit. But I don’t think Sequent was intentionally being mean, so this is pretty mild.)

Zev Steinhardt

Gee I thought you were pitting Sequent for being a retard. Ah well.

I know it’s a minor nitpick about the 3/5 thing, but, well, Zev, you’re wrong.

I don’t think anyone has done that. The implication is that the “3/5 of a person” section in the Constitution suggested, when it was in force, that blacks were considered less than human. And that was indeed certainly the case.

Nope. The whole thing was a compromise. It had nothing to do with slaves’ rights or limiting slavery. It was strictly about political power. If the South could count slaves as citizens, that gave them proportionally more representation in Congress and thus more political power. The North, on the other hand, argued that since slaves had no rights and could not vote, they were not citizens and should not count towards a census any more than, say, a horse. Thus tilting political power in Congress towards the North.

Point taken. It was a good thing. And yes, it no longer means shite, just like the 18th amendment. But I still think it’s still emblematic of the problem of racism in this country; the very fact that it’s in the Constitution indicates that it has been an issue since before the birth of the country.

But you’re right, in the context of the point I was trying to make it was inappropriate.

That’s not entirely true.

While it certainly is true that the struggle was more political in nature than an attempt to gain rights for slaves (which I don’t think it was), the main point of disagreement between the different regions of the country was the existence of slavery. Would there have been regional factionalism is there was no slavery? Of course; but the divide would not have been as deep or contentious as it was with slavery.

The issue at hand wasn’t so much about who could vote. After all, many states had laws stating that only people who owned land could vote - but no one disputed that others who were excluded from voting (non-land-owners, women, children, non-citizens, etc.) counted in the Census for Congressional representation.

Zev Steinhardt

Thanks for the response, Sequent.

However, your statement seems to indicate that we will never overcome racism in this country. After all, we can’t go back and undo the past; the fact that this passage was in the Constitution isn’t going to change. If the very fact that it existed is “still emblematic of the problem of racism in this country,” then the problem can never be solved, becuase it will always have existed.

I certainly hope that’s not what you mean.

Zev Steinhardt

Not really. He’s pretty much done the gist of that.

They may have been, but the 3/5 of a person thing had nothing to do with that. Especially considering that it was the south that wanted them fully counted. And the north didn’t want them counted at all, not because they thought them less than human, but because, as slaves, they weren’t actually citizens. Not only that, but free blacks were counted as a full person.

In other words, it was a compromise designed to weaken the power of the slave states in Congress and strenthen the free states? Which is pretty much what zev said.

By this definition, racism will always be an issue, no matter what steps we take, since it will always be in the Constitution.

Er… which, I see, is the point zev has already made.

So: what zev said.

No, not that it’s any kind of evidence the problem cannot be solved or will always be with us. If I believed it could never be solved, I doubt I’d have the energy to do two pit threads in one day. We have made progress, demonstrated by the very fact that the 3/5ths clause reads much different in today’s light, without the proper historical context. Because of the progress we’ve made, it seems like a throwback when in fact, it was really a step forward. I hope we do eradicate racism. I’m not optimistic about it happening in my lifetime, and the events in New Orleans certainly don’t lend to that hope. But I wouldn’t speak in absolutes.

I still remember one of the first times I heard this being mis-applied.

It was in November 2000, right before the Presidential election. Al Gore told an audience in Georgia:

I find it hard to believe that someone as educated as Al Gore wasn’t deliberately mis-stating the meaning and historical context of the passage in the Constitution.

Zev Steinhardt

Since I’m the author of the quote in question, I thought the original passage would bear quoting:

Never been pitted before. Zev, you popped my cherry. :slight_smile:

I know all the amendments so far have simply enlarged the text of the Constitution while also modifying it, but is there any legal problems with making an amendment to strike outdated text from the Constitution? Oregon did this recently with our state constitution.

[QUOTE=SequentBut I still think it’s still emblematic of the problem of racism in this country; the very fact that it’s in the Constitution indicates that it has been an issue since before the birth of the country. [/QUOTE]

That’s a pretty big assumption to make.
There is racism because many people will always want to blame others for their own problems, or are afraid of those that are different. Doesn’t matter what century.