The “Three/Fifths Compromise” and the Humanity of Blacks

Image:  Howard Chandler Christy’s Signing of the U.S. Constitution 1787

The “Three/Fifths Compromise” and the Humanity of Blacks

In the U. S. Constitution, the phrase,”three fifths of all other Persons,” does not refer to the humanity of each non-white individual; it designated the number of individuals counted for purposes of representation in the legislative branch of the government.

Introduction: “I was only three-fifths of a person”  

Nowhere in the United States Constitution is it stated that the humanity of each black individual was only 3/5 of a white individual.  That persistent inaccuracy demonstrates a false interpretation of the actual 3/5 compromise.  As Malik Simba from explains,  

Often misinterpreted to mean that African Americans as individuals are considered three-fifths of a person or that they are three-fifths of a citizen of the U.S., the three-fifths clause (Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution of 1787) in fact declared that for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state. 

Despite the many corrections of the false claim that blacks as slaves were considered to be only 3/5 human, the claim still appears from time to time.  Some say that the U.S. Constitution enshrined slavery with the 3/5 compromise of 1788, and others make the blatant, inaccurate statement that blacks in the U.S. were thought to be 3/5 human at one point in history.   

Two particularly egregious examples of this inaccuracy come from two high level, supposedly knowledgeable government operatives:  Condoleezza Rice, 66th Secretary of State and General Mark Milley, 20th chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Rice in speeches abroad has claimed, “In the original U.S. Constitution, I was only three-fifths of a person,” and defending the teaching of critical race theory, Milley, refers to that falsehood, as he mistakes the fraction as “3/4s” instead of “3/5s.”   These misstatements by such a sophisticated and knowledgeable individuals demonstrate how widespread and deep some errors have been carved into the culture. 

Representation, Not Degree of Humanity 

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787, for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.  That document had proven too weak to sufficiently address the issues that the newly formed country was facing.  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had believed that merely revising the Articles was impossible and that a complete overhaul was necessary.  Thus, the members of the Constitutional Convention scrapped the Articles of Confederation in favor of composing a completely new document, which, of course, resulted in the Constitution, under which the U.S. has been governed since its ratification. 

The members met with two problems as they were creating the sections regarding representation in the house of representatives and the senate.  States with small populations demanded that each state have equal representation, while large states demanded that representation be based of population.  The respective demands would guarantee a desired advantage for each state.  The Constitutional conveners thus solved that problem by allowing the upper house to have 2 senators, while the lower house would have representatives based on population. 

However, after this fix of the population vs equal number problem, a second issue arose: southern slave states demanded that slaves be counted for purposes of representation, even though slaves would not be afforded the right to vote or otherwise participate in citizenship. 

Free states insisted that no slaves be counted because counting non-participating individuals would give the slave states an unfair advantage.  That advantage would mean that abolishing slavery would be next to impossible.  In effect, if slaves were counted for purposes of representation, that slave count would help perpetuate slavery

Professor Carol Swain Explains

Slave Were Not Citizens  

Slaves possessed no rights of citizenship: they could not vote, run for office, or participate in any civic discussion. Slave were not citizens; they were property in a similar sense that cattle and cotton were property. Keeping slaves as property was the first intention of the slave states.  And by counting slaves, their population would overpower the free states who would ultimately seek the end of slavery. 

While far from being a perfect solution, the “Three/Fifths Compromise” settled the issue of counting slaves:  instead of counting the entire population of slaves, it allowed slave states to count 3/5 of that total number for the purpose of representation.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it state or even imply that each slave is only 3/5 human. 

The slave states demanded full counting of slaves, while the free states demanded that none of the slave population count, because slaves were not citizens.  Following the logic that the “Three/Fifths Compromise” deemed each slave 3/5 of a human, the slave owners were insisting that their slaves were fully human, while the free states, who later worked to abolish slavery, were implying that slaves had no humanity at all.  Both positions are absurd and opposite of the intentions of the slave and free states.  The slave states wanted it both ways essentially: for the purpose of representation they wanted slaves to be counted as citizens, but in every other capacity, they wanted slaves to remains non-citizens. 

The following excerpt, Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, from the Constitution shows clearly that the “Three/Fifths Compromise” does not refer to the individual humanity of each black person: 

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Number of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (emphasis added)  

The “three fifths of all other Persons” designates the slave population in its entirety; it does not designate that the humanity of each black slave is only 3/5 that of a free, white individual. The terms “Negroes,” “Blacks,” “slaves,” and “slavery” do not appear in the  Constitution. 

First Step in Abolishing Slavery 

The founders of the United States of America and framers of the Constitution were well aware of the travesty of slavery and well understood that that institution could not endure.  However, as it is with most deeply ingrained cultural traditions, that evil societal feature could not be mandated in a document that was urgently needed to help govern the young country.  Likely, such a demand insisted on by the free states would have resulted in a Civil War, after which the young nation would not have remained united. 

In order to keep the southern slaves states on board and ultimately accept the new document, the framers had to make the concession of allowing those states to count part of their slave population.  But that concession can be viewed as the first step toward eradicating slavery from the country, and that is exactly how it played out, after the  bloody Civil War (1861-8165) that did occur kept the union together while finally ending the travesty of slavery. 

It is indeed unfortunate that so many individuals still operate under the deception that the “Three/Fifths Compromise” culled down the humanity of blacks in this country to 60%.  It is one of the many false claims that contribute to the racial divide in America. 


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