Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Three-Fifths Compromise

Last week, Ken Blackwell went off on two Washington Post writers for saying the Constitution condoned slavery, which is precisely what it did. While he was at it, he also lodged a few complaints about the way they discussed the three-fifths compromise:
Then, there's the Post's ritual repeating of the falsehood that the Founders viewed black people as "three fifths of a person." That is a wholly tendentious misreading of the Three-Fifths Clause.

It is especially galling to have liberals attack Republican Members on these matters.[1]
And he's not the only one who feels strongly about this. Neal Boortz made it the topic of his weekly Atlanta Journal-Constitution column:[2]
Let's bury this "three-fifths of a person" nonsense. The people who spout this idiocy are either lying or grossly ignorant.
I try to be more tactful about it, but I share their distaste for historical misconceptions. So, in the hope of clearing a few things up, I prepared a short True/False quiz:
  • A. Southern states argued for counting slaves as whole persons, while Northern states would've preferred to not count them at all.
  • B. The three-fifths compromise was not a direct assessment of the value of certain human beings relative to others.
  • C. The three-fifths compromise did not draw a legal distinction between black people and white people.
  • D. Statements A, B, and C, if true, are valid reasons to insult and ridicule those who consider the three-fifths compromise a shameful chapter in American history.
  • E. America was founded by a bunch of racists.
And (as if it's not already clear that I'm more interested in making a point than putting together a proper quiz)…the answers:

A. True
An unexpected gesture of humanity from the South? Of course not. They wanted to count slaves because seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned by population, so higher populations meant more influence for them and less for the North. Not that they had any intention of letting the slaves themselves have a say in who occupied those extra seats.

B. True
As mentioned above, it was mostly about representation in Congress, though it first appeared during the Articles of Confederation days as part of an attempt to resolve a tax dispute. To infer from those two non-horrifying origin stories anything deeper about the Founders' perception of a human being's worth is, according to Blackwell, a "tendentious misreading."

C. True
The distinction was between slaves and non-slaves. There were, of course, black people who were free, and there were also slaves who weren't black. I'm sure the latter took great consolation in knowing the terrible oppression they had to endure would not be in vain, for they would one day be used by blowhards as proof that slavery was slightly less racist than people make it out to be.

What kind of blowhard would do that, you ask? Neal Boortz, for one:
[A]llow me to help you out here with a little history lesson about the Three-fifths Compromise reached at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. You’ll see that there is no evidence to support oft-repeated claims by so many liberals and race pimps that the Constitution is racist.

There was NO mention of race and NO suggestion that anyone counted as three-fifths of a human being. There were, by the way, black slave owners who were counted and white slaves who were not. But let's not cause too much stress for delicate minds.[3]
D. False
Obviously, conservatives don't like hearing that the three-fifths compromise—or anything else about the Constitution—was racist, and I think I've got a handle on why that is. In part, it's because the implication is usually that it was racist because slaves were counted as only three-fifths of a person, when the reality was that every seat in Congress a state obtained by virtue of its slave population was another Representative who could be counted on to vote to perpetuate slavery. For those working to end the practice, the best-case scenario was to not count slaves at all.

Makes sense so far—they want to set the record straight, and there's nothing wrong with that—but at some point setting the record straight starts to overlap with defending the Founding Fathers and the Constitution against accusations of racism, and that's when emotion takes over.

Sure, there was never an evaluation of the relative human-ness of slaves and non-slaves that led to the 3/5 number, but is that supposed to prove that a slave's humanity was 100% recognized by society? Because I can say with absolute confidence, despite having been born five score and 18 years after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, that it was not. And my first piece of evidence is that in the part of the Constitution dealing with the incredibly straightforward matter of counting how many people there are, slaves are subject to different math than everyone else. It doesn't matter how much historical expertise you have—the fact that a fraction had to be negotiated in the first place is a sign something was terribly wrong, and the fact that it remains in the text of the Constitution serves as a vivid reminder that freedom hasn't always been for everyone.

Conservatives talk about the Founders as if they were some single-minded entity, and they use language that seems to treat the Constitution itself as a sentient being (like Boortz's "there is no evidence…the Constitution is racist"), but that's absurd. There were 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Some, like Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, were staunchly opposed to slavery. Others, like Charles Pinckney and Pierce Butler, were relentless advocates. James Madison was somewhere in between, providing a consistent voice for gradual, rather than immediate, emancipation, which I suppose is why he never freed his own slaves. And Thomas Jefferson (not a delegate, but influential nonetheless) was just all over the place. All had a role in shaping the Constitution.

With that in mind, I have three questions:
  1. When conservatives heap praise on the Founders, is it somehow implied that they're excluding Pinckney, Butler, and the other dozen or so delegates who would've refused to sign a constitution prohibiting slavery?
  2. If not, are they prepared to argue that those men weren't so bad (because, I don't know, a handful of white people and Indians were slaves too, and therefore slavery wasn't racist, or some other such nonsense)?
  3. Or are they ignoring the truth—that neither the Constitution nor its creators are as infallible as conservatives make them out to be—and simply framing history however they want?
The first and third are dishonest and hypocritical, while the second seems indefensible. And yet, logic dictates that the answer to at least one of those questions has to be "yes," doesn't it?

It's great that some of the Founders were among the era's leading abolitionists, but it's also shameful that others put up such stubborn resistance. Conservatives accuse liberals of treating the Constitution like it was written entirely by the latter, but then they turn around and treat it like it was written entirely by the former. And both views are asinine, because, the fact is, most of the Founders fell somewhere in between. Hence the three-fifths compromise, which was exactly that—a compromise.

E. Not even close to the kind of question that can be answered with a simple "True" or "False"
So how about we stop acting like we don't know that?

1. As quoted above, Blackwell decries "the Post's ritual repeating of the falsehood that the Founders viewed black people as "three fifths of a person,"" calling it a galling attack on House Republicans. That's a pretty small snippet of text for such sweeping generalizations. Here's the whole sentence:
One [passage omitted during the House reading], the "three-fifths compromise," counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of divvying congressional districts.
That's a galling attack? Looks more like an accurate, objective description of the three-fifths compromise to me.
2. To Boortz's credit, he criticizes both the New York Times and Fox News for their respective comments about the three-fifths compromise, so at least he's not making a specious argument that conservatives understand the Constitution better than liberals. Instead, he's making a specious argument that conservatives are ignorant, while "the left holds our Constitution in contempt," which is…better, I guess.
3. Seriously, what am I supposed to take away from that? That 18th-century America was a diverse rainbow of abuse and subjugation? Also, if it's a distortion of history to call slavery, or the Constitution, or both, racist, then how about immoral? I assume we can call slavery immoral, but what about the pre-1865 Constitution, which—dare I say—condoned slavery? And if both slavery and the pre-1865 Constitution were immoral, then what does it matter that they weren't racist? Ugh. Now I've got a headache, so, if nothing else, Boortz was right about that.


  1. You do realize that without the 3/5 clause the southern states simply would have form their own union with a pro-slavery constitution and the United States would not exist. The founding fathers had to accept a compromise and hoped that the slavery issue could be settled at a later date...which it eventually was.

  2. I do realize that, and I would agree that, all things considered, the compromise was good for the country (certainly better than any foreseeable alternative). But when you say, "[t]he founding fathers had to accept a compromise," it sounds like you're only referring to the anti-slavery founders. My point is that if we're going to talk about the founders in such general terms, we can't ignore the fact that at least a few of them were adamantly pro-slavery—hence the need for a compromise in the first place.

  3. The problem with today's discussion of the 3/5th's Compromise is that the argumentative points are never put into "Historical Context". We choose, in our present day as those before us did, to ignore, discount, or otherwise promote the denial of civil liberties in this country. Our technology, leaders, and clothes might change, however the human condition will always remain. We are no better than our creators of the constitution. I argue that historically speaking, slavery weighed heavy in the minds and hearts of many delegates. They were up against a culture engrained in an American economic system that seemed almost impossible to challenge. Hats off to those that hoped to chip away the institution. The 3/5ths Compromise was also set up to tax the states against the proportionment of slaves. Let us not forget that Hamilton's new state treasury experiments did not follow through with the taxation, allowing the southern states to hold no repercussions.

  4. If you do not believe in conservatism, that's your choice. But to claim to be more tolerant, and yet untolerant of conservatism, seems rather dissonant. Conservatism is an ideal, not a group of people. Whether you like a group of people's or a person's ability to execute such an ideal is irrelevant - especially when the ideal is correct. FYI. - Mack

  5. "Whether you like a group of people's or a person's ability to execute such an ideal is irrelevant…"

    I completely agree. At least, I agree that it should be irrelevant, which is part of the reason I started this blog. I realized I wasn't as good as I thought I was at keeping my political views from being influenced by my distaste (usually) for how the same or similar views presented by politicians and commentators, and I bet I'm not the only one.

    I wouldn't say there's anything in particular I'm trying to do with this site, except be insightful and interesting, but if I can convince a few people that conservatism isn’t as bad as (some) conservatives inadvertently make it sound, and, conversely, that those conservatives might be wise to recognize that the message isn't necessarily the only thing that puts people off, I'll be happy.

    I don't know where you got the idea that I'm intolerant of conservatism, except maybe on the sidebar where I say I "want nothing to do" with it. But I don't think that's intolerance, because (a) it doesn't mean I have a problem with other people embracing conservatism, and (b) it's an idiom that can't be taken literally, and is usually used to exaggerate for effect.

    Anyway, thanks for reading!

  6. How would you characterize conservtive anyway?

    I think there are conservatives who are libertarian leaning, and the dominant group today that I'd call MegaMacho conservatives.

    The latter aren't really small government advocates.

    They just like the state to play up its manly activities: going to war; smacking around criminal; breaking down doors looking for drugs and illegal aliens; and so on. They don't generally care for softer acts like protection of the environment, providing a social safety net, and so on.

    How would you define conservative, or are there many definitions???