Last week I had a spirited discussion with friends at work regarding the three-fifths clause and whether or not it was written to devalue the humanity of slaves (thanks D.S. for providing a great topic for my blog).
Here’s the text from Article I section 2 paragraph 3 of the Constitution.
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within the 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.”
Notice that the formula was applied to representation and taxes. This context (representation and taxation) from my perspective sets up an interesting debate. Do you diminish the power of slave holding states by not counting slaves when apportioning congressional representation while at the same time reducing their burden with respect to direct taxes or do you maximize their representation and increase their tax burden (thus imposing a financial penalty on them). The three-fifths compromise was just that a compromise that diminished the potential representation of slave holding states and yet did not eliminate the direct tax burden associated with slaves. The clause was not about the humanity of slaves nor in any way intended as an affront to them.
This clause has been used to support the notion that the Constitution promoted slavery. Frederic Douglass, who was born a slave, escaped and became a leading abolitionist, initially subscribed to the view that the Constitution was pro-slavery. However, after much study he later changed his view as he describes in the following quote from a lecture entitled “Unconstitutionality of Slavery” given in Glasgow, Scotland on March 26, 1860.