Why the 3/5 Compromise Didn’t Denigrate Blacks

In this post, I’ll be going in a little bit of a different direction than I normally do. Today, I’m gonna look at U.S. History, specifically, the 3/5 Compromise, and explain why those who point to it as denigrating to African Americans have things reversed.

The 3/5 Compromise refers to Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the U.S. 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 (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey A32)

Now, this part of the constitution is no longer in effect, both because slavery was banned under the 13th amendment, and because the 14 Amendment, Section 2, amended the constitution to count all people (except Indians not taxed).

The reason some have pointed to this as one more slap in the face to blacks is because it counts slaves as only partial persons. That is, since only 3/5 of the slave population is counted, each one really only counts as 3/5 of a person. However, there are two reasons why that belief is all wrong.

Firstly, and of less importance than the second point, is the fact that the 3/5 rule applied not to blacks in general, but specifically. Believe it or not, there was such a thing as a free black person.

Secondly, those who decry this as one of America’s great past evils against blacks (as if they really needed more ammo) miss the historical background and reason for the 3/5 compromise.

If counting slaves as partial people, as opposed to whole persons, were meant to denigrate them, you’d think the slave states were the ones who wanted them not to count at all, right? But the opposite is true. The slave states were the ones who wanted slaves to count fully! The Northern free states were the ones who didn’t wnat them to count at all (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey 181).

Why was that? Well, to answer that question, one needs to understand what the whole controversy was about. When counting them, as you can see from the text above, the purpose wasn’t some abstract, hypothetical determination of a person’s worth. The purpose was to determine how many representatives each state would have in the House of Pepresentatives (one of the two chambers of congress). As is the case today, each state was to get a number of votes in the house proportional to their population. The higher a state’s population in comparison o the others, the more of the 435 seats each state gets. So, naturally every state is better off having a higher population. Do you see then why slave states wanted to count slaves in their population? Counting slaves meant higher population which meant more votes in the House which meant more power.

The rub was that the free states, understandably, didn’t want the slave states to have as much power in congress. Since slaves were considered only slightly higher than animals under the law, you could see why some might say the southern states shouldn’t be able to then use those people for the purposes of “people” in the state. The question of counting them or not had nothing to do with the government making a claim about the worth of a slave. Notice it never even actually says that a slave is 3/5 of a person. The question was, could the slave states count them in order to be more powerful and help protect their treasured institution?

Long story short, after all sorts of debating and negotiating, they settled on the 3/5 rule. The slave states would be be able to count some of their slaves (and gain some votes), but not all of them.

So in reality, counting 3/5 of slaves instead of all of them was better for blacks. It was better for abolition. The whole point of it was that counting slaves gave them zero benefit, but it made their masters all the more powerful. When you actually understand the history behind it, you realize that ironically, to insist that the slaves been counted in full would have only helped sustain one of the biggest travesties in American history.

Works Cited

Kennedy, David M., Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas A. Bailey. The American Pageant. Advanced Placement ed. 13th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

(Originally published 11/10/2012: http://3-ringbinder.blogspot.com/2012/11/why-35-compromise-didnt-denigrate-blacks.html. Immaterial changes have been made).


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