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Why were the “wrong” states on either side of the three-fifths compromise?!

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

The Federal Constitution recognized slavery. First, it stated that runaway slaves throughout the U.S. must be returned to their masters. Second, it stated that in order to compute the number of representative each state would have in the House of Representatives, three-fifths of the enslaved inhabitants in each state would be counted alongside their citizens. Such a census – an official counting of the population – was not necessary beforehand, because under the previous American constitution (Articles of Confederation), states received equal representation in Congress, regardless of the size of their population. The new constitution retained equal representation for all states in the upper chamber of Congress (Senate), but called for proportional representation in the lower chamber (House of Representatives).

What surprises students about the three-fifths compromise is that it was the southern states that advocated counting all the slaves, but eventually compromised on counting only three-fifths of them. The reason it surprises many is that most Americans see the three-fifths compromise as a philosophical statement on the value of black and white people; a declaration that a black person has three-fifths the value of a white person. Within this (incorrect) conception, students expect the slave states to set the value of slave lives at zero, and the free states in the North to push for counting all slaves, seeing them as equal in their humanity to white citizens.

The way to solve this conundrum is to remind oneself that the three-fifths compromise, like the rest of the constitution, was not an exercise in moral philosophy, but a practical mechanism for thirteen separate states to share the power and resources of the central government. In this context, the three-fifths compromise emerges as a compromise between southern slave states – which wanted to boost their power in the proportional chamber of Congress (the House of Representatives) – and northern states which wanted to prevent this.

Southern states had fewer citizens than northern states in 1787, when the new constitution was taking shape in Philadelphia. This population imbalance would continue to grow thereafter. Because the proposed Federal Constitution established that each state’s delegation in the lower house of Congress would be in proportion to the size of its population, it was clear to all that northern states would have a clear, permanent, and growing majority. This would allow northern states (with robust commercial and manufacturing sectors, and an agricultural sector that mostly served the domestic market) to influence economic and trade policy in ways favorable to their economies, and unfavorable to southern economies, which were heavily agricultural and geared more toward export to international markets.

Southern framers of the Federal Constitution recognized that including slaves in the census would enable southern states to send more delegates to the House of Representatives. Northern states objected, stating that slaves should not be counted at all, since they were not citizens of the southern states (legislatures represent the citizenry alone). They pointed out, additionally, that since southern congressmen won’t be representing and serving their slave populations, each southern citizen would have greater representation than a northern citizen, violating the principle of proportional representation in the House of Representatives.

In the interest of agreement, northern and southern delegations in the Philadelphia Convention agreed to split the difference almost down the middle, and count three-fifths of slaves for the census. The free black population was counted fully in both North and South, alongside other free residents. This reveals that the three-fifths compromise was not a philosophical statement on the relative value and humanity of blacks and whites; it was merely a mathematical compromise on whether slaves should be counted in the census. Most whites in both North and South certainly had a very low opinion of African-Americans, but this compromise did gauge these views.

What this compromise did gauge was local populations’ concerns about losing their ability to govern themselves and shape their own economies. In the decentralized British Empire, different colonies could manage their affairs and economies differently; the same was true in the states-rights American republic established by the Articles of Confederation. But with the transition from the first U.S. constitution to the second constitution, that freedom to run things locally according to local circumstances, local custom, and local interests came under threat. The Federal Constitution empowered outsiders to influence matters that had always been handled locally. Such bureaucratic centralization was what American settlers had feared and resisted since the colonies’ early history. This fear had produced the Glorious Revolutions in America (1688-89), the rejection of the Albany Plan (1754), colonial resistance against Britain in the 1760s-70s, the American Revolution (1775-83), and the Articles of Confederation themselves. It was this same fear that produced the Federal Constitution’s four most famous compromises – the Connecticut compromise, the electoral-college compromise, the three-fifths compromise, and the Bill of Rights.

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