US Constitution- 3/5 compromise misconception.

I hate hate hate this. I only have a few real pet peeves, but my God if I don’t stop seeing this I’m going to lose my mind. I keep running into it everywhere, most annoyingly on cable news and right here on the SDMB in fact.

Whenever people are talking about the founders and slavery/racism they will almost almost always mention that they regarded slaves as three-fifths a person since that is how the Constitution says to count them for population.

I get it, slavery sucked. But there are a million things to cite as evidence for this obvious truth without mentioning one of the actual ANTI slavery things to come out of the Constitutional Convention.

So just to make sure we are clear, when recording population for congressional representation the southern slave states naturally wanted everyone counted including the slaves, thus getting more House seats. The 3/5 compromise was supported by the northern free states as a way to limit the political power of slave states. It’s just that simple, 3/5 being in the Constitution is not proof of racism, just the opposite.

Okay now that we’ve got that, If I can just get people to stop using ‘literally’ to mean figuritively I’ll be a happy content person.

Very true. But your mileage may vary on whether people treated them like three-fifths of a person, like a full person, or as subhuman.

I would say that the three-fifths clause was neither racist nor anti-racist. It was a compromise. Not counting the slaves at all would have been less racist, but the real racism was in the slavery itself. The three-fifths number was used only for the census. Outside of that, a slave was treated as zero percent of a human being. What many people don’t understand is that counting a slave as a full person in the census would have been made things worse, not better.

Since slaves didnt have suffrage: racist.

I think there were many accounts of slave suffrage from their owners.


Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Representation and taxes were to be determined by the number of persons, so Southerns were of mixed minds about whether to count slaves as whole, partial or non- persons. But yeah, it had nothing to do with whether someone was viewed as a whole human being or not.

And let’s not forget that Indians were not counted, so they were “worse” than slaves.

Interestingly under the Articles of Confederation government the slave states actually did not want slaves to be counted as persons. Under the AoC, Congress could engage in defense or general welfare activities that incurred costs and required funding. However they had no direct taxation authority, instead they could take their expenses and requisition the States for payment.

They had the right to act as bill collectors, and the States had the option to pay, but could not be compelled to pay. For any given requisition, under the AoC each state had to pay a share of the total cost equal to the surveyed and assessed value of real property in that state.

Later on in the life of the US pre-Constitution, an amendment was proposed to instead apportion requisition requirements based on population of the individual states. This was argued as preferable to using real estate because labor was seen as potential productivity while a state with significant unpopulated land would pay a high price per person.

With apportionment of tax responsibility being proposed based on population, the South predictably took the position that slaves should not be considered part of the population. The Northern states took the opposite position. Thomas Jefferson (predictably) was strongly on the side of the South, and argued that by taxing the South using slaves as part of the population would in effect mean slave states were being “taxed on both population and property” while the rest of the states (some with minimal or no slaves) would just be taxed on population.

They eventually came to a compromise–at counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person. (At least in Congress, under the AOC any amendment had to be approved unanimously and New York and New Hampshire voted against.)

Eh, I get what your saying, but the 3/5ths compromise doesn’t really make much sense outside of the context of slavery. The image of a bunch of white guys quibbling (to the nearest 10%!) over how much political power disenfranchised slaves should impart to the same owners that are oppressing them is a pretty clear proof of racism. Even if some people aren’t percisely aware of the context of what led to the compromise, I don’t think they’re wrong to use it as an example of racism being codified in the Constitution.

But didn’t the census determine the number of representatives a state got in the House?

I’ve always believed the 3/5ths number was a compromise that favored slaveholding interests in the South because, although the slaves neither voted nor were represented in the House, 3/5ths of them counted to increase a state’s representatives (who would then vote only in the interest of the white non-slave population, and of course be particularly beholden to wealthy slaveowners).

Properly, of course, the slaves should not have counted at all. Legally, they were regarded as property, but no one else’s property generated extra representation in Congress. Counting them at 3/5ths was a big win for the Southern slaveholding states.

Presumably the Northern states agreed to the compromise, even though it was not in their interest nor particularly logical, in the interest of getting all the colonies on board as one nation.

To sum up: I see it the opposite of the OP; it was an expansion of the power of the slave states, reluctantly permitted by the free states.

When was Jefferson expressing this view? he wasn’t at the Constitutional Convention, since he was Minister to France at the time.

Presumably during the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, which is what Martin was discussing in the post you quoted.

Racist, absolutely. Slaves weren’t allowed to vote and the rule increased the southern representation in congress, allowing the southerners to use 3/5 of each slave to vote against the interests of those slaves. Yes it was a compromise but any argument that it was not racist is fatuous. And that goes for the OP.

To be fair, he was clearly talking about the situation after the AoC were drafted. But it wasn’t quite clear how close to the time of the drafting of the constitution he was talking about.

The 3/5 ratio arose during a debate on a proposed amendment to the Articles of Confederation, to allow the government to levy direct taxes. The amendment was proposed (and passed Congress, but failed of ratification by the states) in 1783, while Jefferson was serving in Congress. He wasn’t appointed ambassador until the following year.

The way I look at it, the effect of the 3/5 compromise was to count slaves as **-**3/5 of a person, since it effectively gave an extra 3/5 of a vote not to the slave, but to the person who enslaved him.

So 3/5 was even worse than zero.

Indeed, but by that reasoning counting slaves as whole persons would be even worse than that. Yet the complaint usually is along the lines of “it’s terrible that the slaves were only counted as 3/5 of a person instead of a whole person”, which is the opposite. This is what the OP is saying, I think.

Certainly, the compromise was a direct endorsement of slavery. Certainly, the Constitutional Convention would have broken up had the compromise not taken place. Then the slaveholding South might have formed another country altogether, quite possibly then conquered by France or England. A missed opportunity for America.

Anyway, what the South was asking for was outrageous. They simultaneously claimed that slaves were non-human and then wanted them counted for the purposes of representation. It was equivalent to the North wanting to count all its horses as voting citizens.

I think that the 3/5 compromise, though a bitter pill to swallow for those who opposed slavery altogether, was not merely a tacit, but an explicit endorsement of the South’s social and political attitudes regarding slavery. It is interesting to note that the figure was still over 50%, which would seem to be the normal compromise figure–this indicates to me that the Southern delegates had more leverage than the Northern ones.

The complaint gets to the right answer (it was racist) but using the wrong reasoning.

Thing is, pretty much all white people were racist back then, so "they did it because they were racist’ wrt to anything relating to slavery is usually the right answer. Even in the time of Lincoln, most whites were racist, including Lincoln himself.

The odd fraction of 3/5 arose because the figure originally surfaced (in 1783) in the context of taxation. Three-fifths was a crude estimate of the wealth-generating capacity of the average slave relative to the average free person. (It accords surprisingly well with modern econometric estimates.)

In 1787 the debate was resumed in the double context of taxation and representation, and 3/5 was carried forward because it was the path of least resistance, rather than hashing out the arguments again. Of course it was morally reprehensible to grant slave-heavy states “representation” on behalf of people they were enslaving, and this was pointed out at the time.

However the opposite course (counting slaves for taxes but not for representation) would have created charges of “taxation without representation”–that is, masters were assessed taxes on account of their slaves but not granted bonus representation. Not counting slaves for either taxation or representation would have allowed the South to skate off lightly if and when direct taxes were assessed.

As it happened the Supreme Court construed “direct taxes” narrowly, and direct taxes were assessed only briefly and intermittently throughout the Nineteenth Century, so the South got rather the better of this bargain.

At least free blacks were counted as full persons. This acted as a slight spur to state-level emancipation, which was in progress in the North in the late 1700’s with hope (pre-cotton gin) that it might spread further south.

But that was not because of the compromise. The compromise existed because it was already clear that slaves wouldn’t be able to vote. The people who wanted them to count fully anyways, they were the racists. And those who wanted them to not count weren’t racists. But the ones who wanted to come up with something so they could get them both to sign on are neither racist nor non-racist. They are just practical.