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three-fifths clause

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution originally apportioned representatives and direct taxes among the states by "adding to the whole Number of free Persons … three fifths of all other Persons." The 3/5 Clause was a compromise between the northern states not wanting slaves counted, and southern states wanting all slaves counted, when determining a state's total population. Had slaves been counted fully, southern states would have had the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College, particularly since slaves could not vote.

This vote would fix the three-fifths clause in relation to taxation.  It would later be combined with the clause relating to representation into what would become Article I Section 2 of the Constitution.  It is interesting that Delaware is alone in voting against it.  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

Paul Finkelman says of this exchange: “For the South, this debate, along with the vote that followed it, was a major victory.  The debate exposed many of the weakness of slavery; some delegates had made powerful moral and practical arguments against the institution.  Yet all the northern states except New Jersey voted with the South.”  This strange interpretation of the vote – that all but Delaware voted “with the South” – only makes sense if the three-fifths clause is in fact a pro-Southern compromise.  Yet even Finkelman acknowledged that the vote taken on July 11 (Paragraph 1251) had demonstrated that there were states in the North as well as the South who were holding out for something better than what they thought the three-fifths ratio would give them.  And elsewhere Finkelman describes the three-fifths clause as “a political compromise” that “probably had to be made.”  If it is true that the three-fifths ratio was a compromise for both sides that couldn’t be avoided, then on what basis can it be claimed that this vote is “a major victory” for the South, representing that the North was “with” them? 

Don E. Fehrenbacher was both more correct and more consistent when he wrote: “The three-fifths clause, like most compromises, can be perceived in different ways, but to label it simply proslavery or antislavery is more an act of volition than of judgment.”  And, as George William Van Cleve correctly points out: “A principal reason for Northern delegates’ acceptance of a permanent system of slave property representation was that many Northern delegates accepted the principle that wealth should be represented in a republican government.  Northern delegates also generally agreed that, as Rufus King said, the Southern states were comparatively wealthier, and that the theree-fifths clause appropriately reflected the disproportionate wealth of the slave states.”  Donald L. Robinson develops this theme even further, concluding:  “Notwithstanding its [the three-fifths clause] affront to their principles, most theoretical republicans accepted the three-fifths compromise in order to reach agreement on a formula for basing representation on population [rather than some other formula estimating both wealth and population or wealth alone].” 

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

Although the three-fifths compromise was not enormously popular among the states, this vote shows the pervasive unwillingness to reopen the question once it had been settled.  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

Although the three-fifths compromise was not enormously popular among the states, this vote shows the pervasive unwillingness to reopen the question once it had been settled.  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This vote demonstrates that most of the states had become reconciled to the three-fifths compromise by this time.  As King’s speech (Paragraph 2079) and Morris’ attempt to reopen the question (Paragraph 2085) reveal, however, the principle continued to be “a most grating circumstance” to the minds of many.  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This vaguely worded and innocuous-sounding provision is of tremendous importance.  If it had passed as it stands here, it would have prohibited Congress from ever outlawing the African slave trade.  It is therefore worth noting that its inclusion into the draft report of the Committee of Detail was not preceded by any vote within the Convention.  The topic of the slave trade had been broached on more than one occasion during the debates (some members of the North were particularly galled by the inclusion of the three-fifths clause because it might prove an unintended encouragement for the importation of more slaves).  But no serious discussion had yet commenced on whether the trade should be outlawed by the central government or whether the Southern states should be allowed to import African slaves in perpetuity.

The five-man committee that added this clause in their report, on their own initiative, included John Rutledge (the delegate who was possibly the most fiercely pro-slavery representative of the most fiercely pro-slavery state of South Carolina), Edmund Randolph (a Virginia slaveowner who nonetheless harbored serious antislavery sentiments), Nathaniel Gorham (a delegate from Massachusetts who had often been ready to make common cause with Southern slave interests, such as when he would later second General Pinckney’s motion on August 25 to extend the period during which the Deep South could import slaves), Oliver Ellsworth (who had proven throughout the Convention that he could be a willing accomplice to Southern slavery interests), and James Wilson (a delegate who represented the antislavery state of Pennsylvania, but who nonetheless readily compromised with the South whenever the subject of slavery was broached).  According to William M. Wiecek, it was Randolph that inserted the protectionist clause for the slave trade in the committee of detail, but the document he cites as evidence is inconclusive.  This clause would almost immediately inflame the ire of some delegates, for instance Rufus King’s outburst on August 8 (Paragraph 2079).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This nearly unanimous vote would establish the three-fifths ratio through the United States and into the future, anticipating that new slaveholding states might be adopted at a later date.  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

Donald L. Robinson has shown that the division among states who favored proportional versus equal representation was more aligned with the Southern-Northern division rather than the large- and small-state division normally associated with the issue.  His reason is the pervasive expectation at the time that the population was drifting in a south-westerly direction.  What can be said of proportional representation can also be said of their interest in procuring representation on the basis of slaves.  “In other words,” writes Garry Wills, “the South was not demanding slave representation to achieve a near-parity at the moment, but as a way of achieving majority control in the immediately foreseeable future.”  

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This vote would establish the three-fifths clause in the Constitution.  Its final vote (6 ayes, 2 noes and 2 divided states) reveals solid, but hardly overwhelming support.  Much had changed since June 11, when the topic was first broached.  Although this vote ties the issue of representation to that of taxation, the debates make clear that the three-fifths ratio for the purpose of calculating direct taxation was not a contentious issue at the Convention.  The compromise was between those states that did not want slaves counted at all for the purpose of representation and those that wanted to count slaves fully.  Gouverneur Morris would later try once more on August 8 (Paragraph 2085) to base representation on free persons only, but his attempt to reopen the topic would fail resoundingly.  Indeed the votes taken on August 8 and 21 (Paragraph 2078, 2092, and 2702) demonstrate that most of the states had by that time become reconciled to this compromise.

While it may gall later critics that the Southern states gained greater political power on the basis of their slaves, its worthwhile to remember what Frederick Douglass said of this clause:

             “It is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation.  A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution.  Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free over slave States. . . . it still leans to freedom.”  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This second (and final) attempt by South Carolina to garner full representation for their slaves received the same vote tally that it did the day before, except that Delaware now adopted its accustomed negative on all questions relating to basing representation on slaves.  In order to follow the tortured route that the three-fifths clause took on its way to adoption into the Constitution, follow the votes taken in:  (Paragraphs 458, 461, 1229, 1251, 1260, 1289, 1293, 1314, 2078, 2092, and 2702).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013