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.