After President James W. Wagner’s controversial column on the Three-Fifths Compromise, many criticized him for historical inaccuracies.
The Wheel has consulted with Emory professors to clarify the details of the Three-Fifths compromise.
July 12, 1787
One stifling summer day in 1787, 55 men in breeches and powdered wigs – a collection of governors, patriots, lawyers, merchants, bankers, plantation owners and even physicians – wiped sweat from their brows in the stagnant heat of the Pennsylvania State House.
It was there in Independence Hall on July 12, 1787 that three-fifths of U.S. inhabitants bought and sold like pieces of furniture were given proportional representation in Congress.
Several Emory professors, however, offer a broader historical context for the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise, with emphasis on the fact that its creation may have hindered the possibility of emancipation. Still, others see the issue as the political and economic dilemma of enumerating human beings labeled as “property” in the United States Census.
“They weren’t considering ethical issues,” Emory American history professor James L. Roark said regarding the Founding Fathers. “They were in Philadelphia to create a new nation. The purpose was not to end slavery but to create a compact that would bring the 13 colonies together.”
The concept of “three-fifths” originated at the Continental Congress of 1783, in which delegates from the North and South jostled over how slave populations should affect the ability to pay taxes, or wealth, of each state.
Ultimately, nothing was passed, as amending the Articles of Confederation required a unanimous vote. Still, the idea seemed to stick in the Founders’ minds as a means of taxable wealth-measurement, rather than an ethical grey area.
“The three-fifths compromise was not proposed because delegates believed that African slaves were only 60 percent human,” wrote Richard Beeman in his 2009 book, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. It was meant, he continued, to measure wealth that each individual slave contributed to his or her statewide economy.
According to Emory political science professor and author Alan Abramowitz, the Founding Fathers attempted to avoid the subject of slavery as much as possible, as some already viewed it as “a reprehensible thing” and “a vexing issue.”
“There was a widely-held view that slavery was doomed and would disappear in the near future, but that was before the cotton gin,” Abramowitz said. “The main goal was to make sure the southern states would ratify the Constitution. They didn’t even want to use the word ‘slavery.'”
Emory professor of African American literature and culture Lawrence Jackson also believes emancipation was well on its way following the Revolutionary War.
Jackson cited the two black regiments representing Rhode Island, the enslaved William Lee’s support of General George Washington and the hundreds of Haitian soldiers defending Savannah, Ga., among other examples.
“But what developed was very close to 200 years of rationalizing slavery with all the rigmarole of a modern, rapidly-industrializing society,” Jackson added.
Most assume the disagreement between those arguing for or against full representation of slaves in the census focused predominantly on the South’s potential gains in legislative power. On the contrary, some southerners, like George Mason of Virginia, were opposed, as an increase in population count would raise state taxes.
Others consider the human rights issue the main source of the clash. Contrary to this belief, some northern delegates, such as Elbridge Gerry of Maryland, argued that slaves should have zero representation. Southerners like Pierce Butler of South Carolina thought they should be represented equally with whites.
According to federalist James Madison’s comprehensive notes on the Convention, however, the real problem was a purely economic one.
Mason, an anti-federalist patriot from Virginia, for example, argued that slaves “raised the value of the land, increased exports and imports, and of course the revenue” of the United States and were thus “useful to the community at large.” Therefore, he concluded, they were an economic asset that should be represented in terms of taxable utility.
Jackson agrees with the conclusion that the issue of human rights was hardly an afterthought.
“It’s hard for me as a descendant of Africans enslaved in Virginia during this era, to understand the southern politicians as [anything] other than cynics pressing for more tax dollars and political representation on the backs of people they were making into things,” he said.
Currently, Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3 reads, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … 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 Ten Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
Still, the wording was not decided without a qualm.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, one of the few delegates to attack the morals of slavery during the convention and the only one to protest the unethical nature of the Three-Fifths Compromise, voted against an earlier provision before conceding to the final agreement.
He, wrote Madison, “was compelled to declare himself reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States or to human nature, and he therefore must do it to the former.
“For he could never again give such encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing them a representation for their Negroes,” Morris said.
– By Lydia O’Neal