Setting the Record Straight on Slavery and the Constitution

By: July 06, 2011

I want to comment on an aspect of the Constitution that has been universally abused over the years by politicians, teachers, professors, etc.  In fact, just recently Bill O’Reilly also got it wrong on The O’Reilly Factor.  I am talking about Article I, Section 2, which deals with how slaves were to be counted in apportioning seats in the House of Representatives (the famous three-fifths clause). 

Critics contend that the framers of the Constitution did not consider slaves to be fully human, because when totaling a state’s population, each slave was to count as only three-fifths of a person.  Wrong.  This provision of the Constitution allowed for three-fifths (60%) of the total number of slaves in a state to be counted toward the population total–big difference.  It had nothing to do with degrees of humanity.  It was simply a compromise that northern delegates made with southern delegates to prevent the southerners from leaving the Constitutional Convention.  Southerners wanted all of their slaves (100%) to count in the population total so as to increase their seats in Congress.  Northern opponents of slavery did not want to count any of the slaves (0%) since they were not citizens and could not vote. 

If the critic’s version is correct, and the three-fifths compromise actually reflects the Founding Fathers’ beliefs about a slave’s level of humanity, think about who the heroes and villains would be.  The heroes would be the southern slaveholders who wanted to count all slaves, and the villains would be the anti-slavery northerners who wanted them to count as zero.

Tim Johnson is a Professor of History at David Lipscomb University and author of  Liberty VS Power: The Founding Fathers’ Vision for America.

One Response to Setting the Record Straight on Slavery and the Constitution

  1. Joseph says:

    Thank you for the post. Do you have information on the origin of the inaccurate version and when it began to work its way into textbooks? I do not recall it from high school in the late 1960s, college in the early 1970s, or graduate school in the early 1980s. My earliest recollections track back to Democratic politicians: either Ted Kennedy or Jesse Jackson at one of the conventions in the 1980s, I believe.

    The text that I use to teach high school US history gives an accurate explanation; the text that I use to teach AP US history mentions the clause twice: the first time they state it incorrectly, the second reference is more-or-less accurate.

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