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.
“Although I cannot accuse myself of being remarkably unstable, I cannot pretend that I have never altered my opinion both in respect to men and things.
“Indeed I have been very much modified both in feeling and opinion within the last fourteen years, and he would be a queer man who could have lived fourteen years without having his opinions and feelings considerably modified by experience in that length of time.
“When I escaped from slavery, twenty-two years ago , the world was all new to me, and if I had been in a hogshead with the bung in, I could not have been much more ignorant of many things then I was then. I came out running. All I knew was that I had two elbows and a good appetite, and that I was a human being—a sort of nondescript creature, but still struggling for life.
The first I met were the Garrisonian abolitionists of Massachusetts. They had their views, opinions, platform, and eloquence, and were earnestly labouring for the abolition of slavery: They were my friends, the friends of my people, and nothing was more natural than that I should receive as gospel all they told me [including 'slavery is constitutional', so the Union that is perpetuated by enslaving people is a ‘covenant with death and an agreement with hell’].
‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man’ [I Cor. 13:11]. —that is, after I went over to Great Britain and came back again—-I undertook the herculean task, without a day's schooling, to edit and publish a paper—to unite myself to the literary profession.
I could hardly spell two words correctly; still I thought I could ‘join’ as we say, and when I had to write three or four columns a week, it became necessary to re-examine some of the opinions I had formed in my baby days; and when I came to examine for myself [the previously unknown-to-him 'slavery is unconstitutional' position] my opinions were greatly modified, and I had the temerity to state to the parties [Garrisonians] from whom I received them my change of opinions; and from that day to this—whether in the east or the west, in or out of America, in Ireland, Scotland, or England—I have been pursued and persecuted by that class of persons on account of my change of opinions.
But I am quite well satisfied, very well satisfied with my [new 'slavery is unconstitutional'] position.”
By educating himself Frederick Douglass came to the conclusion that the Constitution not only did not support slavery but it inherently prohibited it (Read his full speech to understand why he switched his opinion) .
Attempts have also been made to use the three-fifths clause to support the viewpoint that the Founders supported slavery or viewed slaves as less than human. That a large number of the Founders were strong opponents of slavery cannot be denied in the light of their own words and actions (not the revisionist history taught in most public schools and universities today). David Barton’s note on the Founding Father’s and Slavery provides a good sampling of the Founders views in their own words.
As a side note I find it interesting that many “enlightened” academicians spend so much time trying to undermine the Constitution by denigrating the Founders. Often they are lauded by fellow elites for these efforts. However, let me flip the circumstances (taking something bad and trying to make it look good) and see what happens. Suppose someone tried to show that there was some good in Nazism by promoting the positive aspects of Adolf Hitler’s personality and life. Would that effort be lauded or condemned? I wonder. Or would most feel the same revulsion to that idea that I do.
The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 2, Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, p 86-145. Note, the Founders’ Constitution is an excellent reference that should be a part of every Constitutional library. It is a 5 volume set that provides for every clause of the Constitution extracts from contemporary discussions (journals, autobiographies, letters, minutes …) and later commentaries. It can be purchased at the website of the National Center for Constitutional Studies as well as Amazon and other bookstores.
- The Founding Fathers and Slavery, David Barton
- The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, Frederick Douglass
Link to speech from site with links to writings from the history of abolitionism. You’ll need to scroll down through background info to get to speech.
Link to speech from BlackPast.org. This is a cleaner version of the speech but does not have the background information of the other site.