Hating the Three-Fifths: Loving the Compromise

Recently the President of Emory University, James Wagner, has been coming under intense fire for his statement that the Three-Fifths Compromise in our original Constitution was a shining example of how opposing political camps can come to agree on something. (You can read the original story here.)

Before we can judge Wagner’s comments, it’s important to understand the essence of the Three-Fifths Compromise. On its surface, it seems that the Founding Fathers are saying that slaves are only worth three-fifths of a person, but the issue is far more complicated than that.

Slavery has long been a lightning rod for criticism of the Founding Fathers. When we speak of our Constitution as the sacred document that embodies the principles and rules that make America great, we often forget that slavery was part of these original principles and rules.

1) Slavery was protected by forcing Northern States to return escaped slaves to the South. Article IV, section 2 said “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” This clause recognizes the legality of slavery in the United States and rightfully causes us to wonder how a nation founded on the principles of equality and freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence could also embody the horrors of slavery in its constitution.

2) The importation of slaves was also protected in the original Constitution….but for a limited time only. Article I, section 9 said, in part “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” So for twenty years after the ratification of the Constitution, it was perfectly legal to continue buying slaves from African slave traders, shoving them like sardines in the hulls of ships, and binding them to a life of servitude here in order to add to the wealth of white southern landowners.

3) The third reference to slavery comes in the definition of how Representatives will be apportioned among the states. The convention had already decided that representation in the House would be decided by state population. The South wanted to count all slaves in its population so that it would have more representation in the House. The North was willing to allow the South to use this counting method as long as slaves were allowed to vote. The South, of course, had no intention of allowing slaves to vote, so the Convention was deadlocked. In the end, the Three-Fifths Compromise, embodied in Article I, sec 2 stated that representation “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.”

So three-fifths of “other Persons” was used to calculate how slaves would be counted. Critics of the Three-Fifths Compromise have long complained that the United States thinks slaves are only three-fifths of a person. While it’s simple to think of things this way, it’s not really what the framers had in mind. If we examine James Madison’s notes from the Convention, we can see the potential that the slavery issue had to destroy the convention in its entirety. (Whatever Madison might have done as President pales in comparison to his invaluable contribution to our nation’s history by his meticulous note taking at the Constitutional Convention. You can read his original notes here: http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/debates/)

The Northern position was best articulated by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania. In a lengthy speech made on August 8, 1787, Madison summarizes Morris’s views on slavery:

“Mr. Govr. MORRIS moved to insert “free” before the word inhabitants. Much he said would depend on this point. He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. Travel thro’ ye. whole Continent & you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance & disappearance of slavery.”

Morris’ passionate attack on slavery caused a lot of problems at the Convention as the South threatened to walk out if the final document banned slavery. If, as Morris states, slavery was indeed a “curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed,” then it seemed impossible for those who felt like Morris to leave Philadelphia with a document that embraced slavery. At the same time the South would never agree to a document that banned it. General Charles Pinckney of South Carolina laid out the Southern view on August 22, 1787. From Madison’s notes:

“He contended that the importation of slaves would be for the interest of the whole Union. The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; The more consumption also, and the more of this, the more of revenue for the common treasury. He admitted it to be reasonable that slaves should be dutied like other imports, but should consider a rejection of the clause as an exclusion of S. Carola. from the Union.”

In short, Pinckney articulated the common feeling about slaves in the South: they are property and any attempt to change that would keep South Carolina (and presumably the rest of the South) out of the Union. Besides, slaves were good for all of us.

The moral and economic arguments about slavery had all the potential to tear the country apart before it even got started. In less than one hundred years we learned exactly how desperate the South was to hang on to their system of free labor. Over 700,000 casualties during the Civil War taught us all what the Founding Fathers already knew. If either side tried to force its position on slavery on the entire country, there was no longer going to be a country.

Emory President Wagner’s use of the Three-Fifths Compromise to discuss what is possible when two sides are very far apart on an issue may sound shocking and offensive at first blush. If the Three-Fifths Compromise really is a sign that the Founding Fathers were willing to embody the horrors of slavery into our Constitution, then any defense of the embodiment is certainly worth our wrath.

But Wagner’s point was NOT that he approved of the “content” of the Three-Fifths Compromise. Rather he points out that if the leadership in 1787 was able to find common ground on an issue as divisive as slavery, we ought to be able to settle our differences on gun control, taxation, abortion, etc. Great compromises are best known for how unhappy they make everyone involved. It’s hard to imagine Gouverneur Morris signing the Constitution without holding his nose and asking for forgiveness from his God. It’s equally hard to imagine Charles Pinckney signing the document knowing that by agreeing to end the slave trade, he was agreeing to the eventual demise of his “peculiar institution.” Both sides left Philadelphia unhappy about the Three-Fifths Compromise, but it was that Compromise that allowed the country to stay together long enough to establish itself. The delegates leaving Philadelphia certainly recognized they were simply handing the problem down to some future generation.

I think it’s very hard to look back at that period and be proud of what our Founding Fathers did. It’s very hard to accept that much of the greatness of our country from an economic standpoint was only possible because of slavery. The legacy of slavery lives on today as we continue to battle the effects of racism. Modern descendants of slaves rightfully feel there are still wrongs to be righted, and modern descendants of those who were enriched from slavery feel absolutely no responsibility for the sins of their fathers.

But Wagner’s argument seems entirely appropriate. As we watch our factionalized country attempt to deal with problems that only seem to increase the polarization in the nation, there just might be a lesson to learn from the Three-Fifths Compromise. Moving ahead on the issues that divide us today is going to go in one of two ways.

1) Either we strike a grand bargain that makes all of us unhappy, or
2) We decide to fight to the finish which is exactly what we’ll get.

On gun control, the polar ends of the debate have got to move closer to the center. If the NRA sticks to its increasingly hard-line stance (they used to be in favor of universal registration) that NO restrictions are acceptable, then we must find a way to ignore their immoral and unreasonable positions. We can achieve reasonable control of guns without them and if they don’t want to be part of the process, let them continue to marginalize themselves. If others insist we move to a disarmed nation, then their stance is no more practical than that of Northern leaders who refused to include any mention of slavery in the Constitution.

Similar arguments can be made on abortion and taxation. If your aim is that no abortion should be legal in this country, you’re allowing your personal moral views to cloud your judgment. If your aim is to make all abortion at all times legal, then you’re not making room for legitimate moral arguments about when life begins. Both of these extremes are getting in the way of valid health concerns and the exercise of liberty guaranteed by our Constitution.

Finally, if your stance is that our government can run without any taxation, you’re actually advocating for a return to Hobbes “state of nature” since no society can function without the revenues to protect itself or to promote the common good. If on the other hand, you see government spending as a panacea for all problems, you’re getting in the way of worthy cuts in wasteful spending and you’re ignoring the possible incentives for growth that come when people have more of their own money to spend.

What President Wagner had to say about the Three-Fifths Compromise might made your blood curdle a bit, but that’s only because you haven’t taken the time to think about the importance of his argument.


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