The 1787 debate over how slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxes.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise reached among state delegates during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention. Whether, and if so, how, slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes was important, as this population number would then be used to determine the number of seats that the state would have in the United States House of Representatives for the next ten years. The compromise solution was to count three out of every five slaves as a person for this purpose. Its effect was to give the southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored, but fewer than if slaves and free people had been counted equally. The compromise was proposed by delegate James Wilson and seconded by Charles Pinckney on June 11, 1787.
The three-fifths ratio originated with an amendment proposed to the Articles of Confederation on April 18, 1783. The amendment was to have changed the basis for determining the wealth of each state, and hence its tax obligations, from real estate to population, as a measure of ability to produce wealth. The proposal by a committee of the Congress had suggested that taxes “shall be supplied by the several colonies in proportion to the number of inhabitants of every age, sex, and quality, except Indians not paying taxes”. The South immediately objected to this formula since it would include slaves, who were viewed primarily as property, in calculating the amount of taxes to be paid. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his notes on the debates, the southern states would be taxed “according to their numbers and their wealth conjunctly, while the northern would be taxed on numbers only”.
After proposed compromises of one-half by Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and three-fourths by several New Englanders failed to gain sufficient support, Congress finally settled on the three-fifths ratio proposed by James Madison. But this amendment ultimately failed, falling two states short of the unanimous approval required for amending the Articles of Confederation (only New Hampshire and New York were opposed).
The Convention had unanimously accepted the principle that representation in the House of Representatives would be in proportion to the relative state populations. However, since slaves could not vote, leaders in slave states would thus have the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College. Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free inhabitants of each state be counted for apportionment purposes, while delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, opposed the proposal, wanting slaves to count in their actual numbers.
The proposal to count slaves by a three-fifths ratio was first proposed on June 11, and agreed to by nine states to two with only a brief debate. It was debated at length between July 9 and 13, inclusive, when it was initially voted down by the members present at the Convention. A few southern delegates, seeing an opportunity, then proposed full representation for their slave population. Seeing that the states could not remain united without some sort of compromise measure, the ratio of three fifths was brought back to the table and agreed to by eight states to two.
Compromise and Enactment
After a contentious debate, the compromise that was finally agreed upon—of counting “all other persons” as only three-fifths of their actual numbers—reduced the representation of the slave states relative to the original proposals, but improved it over the Northern position. An inducement for slave states to accept the Compromise was its tie to taxation in the same ratio, so that the burden of taxation on the slave states was also reduced.
The Three-Fifths Compromise is found in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States 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.
A contentious issue at the 1787 Constitutional Convention was whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation of the states in the Congress or would instead be considered property and, as such, not be considered for purposes of representation. Delegates from states with a large population of slaves argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation, but as property if the new government were to levy taxes on the states on the basis of population. Delegates from states where slavery had become rare argued that slaves should be included in taxation, but not in determining representation.
The proposed ratio was, however, a ready solution to the impasse that arose during the Constitutional Convention. In that situation, the alignment of the contending forces was the reverse of what had been obtained under the Articles of Confederation in 1783. In amending the Articles, the North wanted slaves to count for more than the South did because the objective was to determine taxes paid by the states to the federal government.
Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own…. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together…. Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?Alexander Hamilton
Impact before the Civil War
The Three-Fifths Compromise gave a disproportionate representation of slave states in the House of Representatives relative to the voters in free states until the American Civil War. In 1793, for example, Southern slave states had 47 of the 105 members but would have had 33, had seats been assigned based on free populations. In 1812, slave states had 76 out of 143 instead of the 59 they would have had; in 1833, 98 out of 240 instead of 73. As a result, Southern states had disproportionate influence on the presidency, the speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War. Along with this must be considered the number of slave and free states, which remained mostly equal until 1850, safeguarding the Southern bloc in the Senate as well as Electoral College votes.
Historian Garry Wills has postulated that without the additional slave state votes, Jefferson would have lost the presidential election of 1800. Also, “slavery would have been excluded from Missouri … Jackson’s Indian removal policy would have failed … the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico … the Kansas-Nebraska bill would have failed.” While the Three-Fifths Compromise could be seen to favor Southern states because of their large slave populations, for example, the Connecticut Compromise tended to favor the Northern states (which were generally smaller). Support for the new Constitution rested on the balance of these sectional interests.
After the Civil War
Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) later superseded Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 and explicitly repealed the compromise. It provides that “representatives shall be apportioned … counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.” A later provision of the same clause reduced the Congressional representation of states who denied the right to vote to adult male citizens, but this provision was never effectively enforced. (The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1865, had already eliminated almost all persons from the original clause’s jurisdiction by banning slavery; the only remaining persons subject to it were those sentenced for a crime to penal servitude, which the amendment excluded from the ban.)
After the Reconstruction Era came to an end in 1877, however, the former slave states subverted the objective of these changes by using various strategies to disenfranchise their black citizens, while obtaining the benefit of apportionment of representatives on the basis of the total populations. These measures effectively gave white Southerners even greater voting power than they had in the antebellum era, inflating the number of Southern Democrats in the House of Representatives as well as the number of votes they could exercise in the Electoral College in the election of the president.
The disenfranchisement of black citizens eventually attracted the attention of Congress, and in 1900 some members proposed stripping the South of seats, related to the number of people who were barred from voting. In the end, Congress did not act to change apportionment, largely because of the power of the Southern bloc. The Southern bloc comprised Southern Democrats voted into office by white voters and constituted a powerful voting bloc in Congress until the 1960s. Their representatives, re-elected repeatedly by one-party states, controlled numerous chairmanships of important committees in both houses on the basis of seniority, giving them control over rules, budgets and important patronage projects, among other issues.
- Madison, James (1902) The Writings of James Madison, vol. 3, 1787: The Journal of the Constitutional Convention, Part I (edited by G. Hunt), p. 143
- Story, Joseph (1833) Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, §641 (Book 3, Chapter 9)
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- Wills pg. 51
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- Wills pp. 51–52
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- Madison, pp. 143-4
- The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President
- Madison Debates, July 11, the actual vote was 6 to 4, against counting by 3/5ths
- Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson
- Madison Debates July 12, only two states favored full representation for slaves: South Carolina and Georgia. All other states voted no.
- Madison, p. 416
- Paul Finkelman, “How The Proslavery Constitution Led To The Civil War”, Rutgers Law Journal Volume 43 Fall/Winter 2013 Number 3, p405
- Jonathan Elliot, ed. (1866). The Debates In The Several State Conventions On The Adoption Of The Federal Constitution, As Recommended By The General Convention At Philadelphia, In 1787. J.B. Lippincott & Co. Washington: Taylor & Maury. p. 237.
- Wills pp. 5–6.
- Banning, Lance (August 31, 2004). “Three-Fifths Historian”. The Claremont Institute. Archived from the original on July 5, 2008. Retrieved January 21, 2008.
- Friedman, Walter (January 1, 2006). “Fourteenth Amendment”. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved June 12, 2013.
- Committee At Odds on Reapportionment, The New York Times, December 20, 1900, accessed March 10, 2008
- Wills, Garry (2003). “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Walton, Hanes, Jr.; Smith, Robert C. (2006). American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom (3rd ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.
- Wiencek, Henry (2004). An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice
Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.29.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.