The Constitution’s “three-fifths compromise,” he said, was designed “to ensure that southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country,” and he asserted that the framers adopted this clause “for the purpose of ending slavery.”
The three-fifths compromise, also known as the three-fifths clause, was not created to constrain the population of slave states nor was it intended to help end slavery. The clause was a compromise between contending visions of freedom and power in the new nation. It helped secure the influence of slaveholders and their allies in the federal government for decades to come, without doing a thing to curb or end the abhorrent practice of slavery.
The inaccuracies and misstatements of Lafferty and other Republicans, who are now seeking to prevent schools from teaching the fact-based history of slavery and racism in the United States, are “Exhibit A” for why we urgently need that history in our classrooms.
In 1787, the delegates who assembled in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution confronted complex questions of how to structure a national legislature and whether to ground representation in an enumeration of the population. They also debated whether, if a population count were used, enslaved people would be given the same weight as free people.
When the convention met, a number of northern states had already begun the process of abolishing slavery. But delegates to the convention, almost half of whom were slaveholders themselves, were overall too invested in slavery and too committed to limiting the power of the federal government to set the nation on a direct course toward abolition.
About 700,000 enslaved people lived in the country at the time, mostly in the southern states. Under sanction of state law, enslavers forced Black people to labor without pay, held them captive on farms and plantations and bought, sold and mortgaged them without regard for their humanity.
Yet during the convention’s contentious debates about structuring Congress, some southerners insisted that if the House of Representatives was going to be based on a count of the population, then enslaved people must be treated as full “persons” in that count. This, of course, would maximize slave states’ representation in Congress.
On the other side, some northern delegates claimed that enslaved people should not be counted at all for purposes of representation. They argued that southerners couldn’t both insist on holding human beings as property and claim them as people when it suited their interests. Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania, pointed up the hypocrisy: “Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?”
Ironically, then, leaders who were invested in slavery wanted the enslaved to be considered full persons, while those who stood mostly for freedom wanted them not counted at all. As historian Patrick Rael has written, “Each section’s interest demanded that it argue against its own principles.”
The convention finally arrived at the compromise position that enslaved people would count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining representation in the House, a formula that was later incorporated into the structure of the Electoral College. The three-fifths ratio itself did not originate in 1787; it had also been adopted as a basis for taxation at a 1783 meeting of the Continental Congress, but did not go into effect because it wasn’t ratified by the states.
The Constitution’s three-fifths clause helped slaveholders advance their interests on the national stage, at least in the short term, giving them more power than they would have had if the enslaved were not counted at all. It put enslavers in a strong position to garner crucial patronage appointments. It also gave them and their allies the edge in close contests, including the election of 1800, in which slaveholder Thomas Jefferson ultimately won the presidency, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which provided for the deportation of Native peoples across the southern states.
Yet the compromise was not powerful enough to guarantee permanent southern dominance, especially in the face of demographic change. In the decades following the nation’s founding, slaveholders’ grip on federal power was imperiled by larger population growth in the North, and they grew to rely on their strength in the Senate to block legislation that might diminish the protections that slavery enjoyed.
For many White southerners, Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the breaking point. Elected almost exclusively by voters in the free states, Lincoln and the Republicans had pledged to stop slavery’s spread. Southern separatists, faced with the possibility that slaveholding interests might never again prevail in the US government, broke with the Constitution and tried to form a separate nation, dedicated to preserving slavery and White supremacy.
In their veneration for the founding, Lafferty and other Republicans are reluctant to grapple with this nation’s history as it actually unfolded. Neither the three-fifths clause nor any other constitutional measure led inevitably to slavery’s abolition. Powerful White Americans persisted in defending the right to own Black people as property. It was, finally, a civil war in which more than 700,000 people perished that forced White southerners to give up those claims.
All this is not a matter of opinion or of politics. It’s a matter of historical fact.
Officeholders should not fear that American children will learn these truths. To the contrary they should fund and support history teaching that tells the whole story, in all its difficulty and drama, to give future generations the tools they need to confront the challenges of their own times.