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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The 3/5 Compromise: It Isn't What You've Been Led To Believe It Is

Whenever I get into a discussion with a person who is angry about the institutional racism of the United States I am invariably told that the Founding Father's believed that African slaves were only worth 3/5 of a person. I always point out that that statement is a misunderstanding of Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States at best and an ignorant way to perpetuate the myth of institutional racial division at worst.

Article I, Section 2:
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 [i.e., slaves].

What It Means
  • free Persons means the basic unindentured population
  • Service for a Term of Years mean indentured servants (who were most often British immigrants)
  • The Native American population was not counted
  • Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a free person
The House of Representatives is proportional -- the more people in a State the more Representatives the State gets in the House. During the drafting of the Constitution, southern slave-holding States were concerned that the northern non-slave States would over-power them by sheer numbers in the House. Likewise, the northern States were convinced that if southern States were allowed to count slaves as free people, the northern States would be overwhelmed by the pro-slavery South. The single issue of slavery almost nullified the United States of America before it was even able to draft a Constitution. During the debates in 1787, George Mason of Virginia argued:
"Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins by national calamities." *
* - It's important to note here that George Mason was a Founding Father: one of the rich white guys so often derided and ridiculed by today's enlightened liberals and race-baiters.

In contrast, John Rutledge from South Carolina argued that "religion and humanity have nothing to do with the questions" of whether the Constitution should protect slavery. He believed the slavery issue was nothing more than a property rights issue.**

** - Once again, painting history and people with a broad stroke is a fool's game.

The southern States were clear that they would not support a Constitution without explicit protections of slavery, and there was no chance of ratification without the support of the southern States. Hence the 3/5 Compromise. The northern States knew that the population of free (and pro-slavery) people would be drastically inflated if people who were only considered to be property were counted as free people.

Not Human, Just Chattel

A current flash point in the discussion of race and America's past is that African slaves were demeaningly considered to only be 3/5 human. This is not true. The demeaning part was the fact that African slaves were considered chattel -- non-human property. What the Framers were trying to accomplish was the founding of a country -- a country divided almost equally (by geography, not population) between supporters of slavery and those who were opposed to the practice.

Another way to look at the 3/5 compromise is that southern pro-slavery delegates wanted to count their chattel as human in order to secure a greater proportional representation in the House, while northern delegates feared that doing so would forever alter the course of the country as far as slavery was concerned. In other words, by counting African slaves as equal to the slaveholders and general population in the eyes of the representational government, African slaves would then be forced to be in voiceless agreement with the very same people who were considering them to be chattel.

The 3/5 compromise, while uncomfortable through a modern lens, held the country together and prevented African slaves from unwittingly championing the system -- through the votes of slaveholders -- that enslaved them.

A History of Racism

Institutional racism in the United States has been a point of conflict since the founding of the country, and no one with even a passing knowledge of US history can deny that. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first step on a path toward eradication of institutional racism in the United States -- a path that would take over 100 years to walk. The country fought to do the right thing from its founding, even if the hearts and minds of all of its people couldn't come to terms with the concept of freedom and equality for all.

The American system is a color-blind and ignorant of race work in progress. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many of the people -- from all races -- currently running the system and working on America's progress.

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