The Three/Fifths Compromise and the Humanity of Slaves

Updated on April 19, 2020
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Expository essay writing in history, philosophy, politics, and spirituality keeps the mind sharp and satisfies its thirst for knowledge.

Constitutional Convention 1787


Introduction: "I was only three-fifths of a person"

Nowhere in the United States Constitution does any statement claim or imply that blacks are only 3/5 of a person. That persistent interpretation of the actual 3/5 compromise shows gross ignorance of the historical facts surrounding the creation of that document.

Despite the many corrections of the false claim that blacks as slaves were considered to be only 3/5 human, the claim still pops up from time to time. Some say that the U.S. Constitution enshrined slavery with the 3/5 compromise of 1788, and others make the blatant falsehood that blacks in the U.S. were thought to be 3/5 human at one point in history.

Even Condoleezza Rice, an educated, accomplished former Secretary of State, misspoke when she said, "In the original U.S. Constitution, I was only three-fifths of a person." Such a misstatement by such a sophisticated and knowledgeable person just shows how widespread and deep some errors have been carved into the culture.

Representation, Not Degree of Humanity

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787, their original purpose for meeting was to revise the Articles of Confederation.

That document had proven too weak to sufficiently address all the issues that the newly formed country was facing. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had believed that merely revising was Articles was impossible and that a complete overhaul was necessary.

Thus the members of the Constitutional Convention scrapped the Articles of Confederation in favor of penning a completely new document, which, of course, resulted in the Constitution, under which the U.S. has been governed since that time.

The members met with a controversy as they were creating the sections regarding representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate. States with small populations demanded that each state have equal representation, while large states demanded that representation be based of population. The respective demands would guarantee the desired advantage for each state.

The Constitutional conveners thus solved that problem by allowing the upper house, Senate, to have 2 senators, while the lower house, House of Representatives, would have representatives based on population.

However, after this fix of the population vs equal number problem, a different issue arose: Southern slave states demanded that slaves be counted for purposes of representation, even though slaves would not be afforded the right to vote or otherwise participate in citizenship.

Free states insisted that no slaves be counted because counting non-participating individuals would give the slave states an unfair advantage. The advantage would mean that abolishing slavery would be next to impossible. In effect, if slaves were counted for purposes of representation, those slaves would be helping perpetuate their own condition of slavery.

It needs to be remembered that as a slave, an individual had no say in any political issue and could not vote, run for office, or participate in any civic discussion. Keeping slaves as property was the first intention of the slave states. And by counting slaves, their population would overpower the free states who would ultimately seek the end of slavery.

To What Does Three/Fifths Refer?

The Three/Fifths Compromise settled the issue of counting slaves: instead of counting the entire population of slavey, it was agreed to count only 3/5 of that number for the purpose of representation. Nowhere in the Constitution does it state or even imply that slaves were only 3/5 human.

It must be kept in mind that it was the slave states that demanded full counting of slaves. By the logic that the Three/Fifths Compromise deemed each slave 3/5 of a human, the slave owners insisted that their slaves were fully human, while the free states who later worked to abolish slavery would have believed slaves had no humanity at all. Both positions are absurd and opposite of the intentions of the slave and free states.

The following excerpt, Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, from the Constitution shows clearly that the 3/5 compromise does not refer to the individual humanity of each black person:

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 Number of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (emphasis added)

The "three fifths of all other Persons" obviously refers to the slave population in its entirety; it does not limit the humanity of each black slave to only 3/5 that of each free, white individual. No terms such as "Negroes," "Blacks," or even "slaves," "slavery" are employed in the document.

First Step in Abolishing Slavery

The founders of the United States and framers of the Constitution are well aware of the travesty of slavery and well understood that that institution could not endure. However, as it is with all ingrained cultural traditions, that evil societal feature could not be mandated in a document that was urgently needed to help govern the young country.

In order to keep the southern slaves states on board and ultimately accept the new document, the framers had to make the concession of allowing those states to count part of their slave population. But that concession can be viewed as the first step toward eradicating slavery from the country, and that is exactly how it played out.

It is indeed unfortunate that so many individuals still operate under the deception that the Three/Fifths Compromise culled down the humanity of blacks in this country to 60%. It is one of the many false claims that contribute to the racial divide in America.


Frederick Douglass and the Three/Fifths Compromise

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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