THE THREE-FIFTHS CLAUSE: A NECESSARY AMERICAN COMPROMISE OR EVIDENCE OF AMERICA’S ORIGINAL SIN?
Tanguay, Michael D.
Hershman, James H
For over 230 years historians and scholars have argued that the Three-fifths Clause of the United States Constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths a citizen when calculating states’ population for apportionment in the House of Representatives, gave Southern states a disproportional amount of power in Congress. This “Slave Power” afforded by the additional “slave seats” in the House of Representatives and extra votes in the Electoral College allegedly prolonged slavery well beyond the anticipated timelines for gradual emancipation efforts already enacted by several states at the time of the Constitutional Convention. An analysis of a sampling of these debates starts in the period immediately following ratification and follows these debates well into the 21st century. Debates on the pro- or anti-slavery aspects of the Constitution began almost immediately after ratification with the Election of 1800 and resurfaced during many critical moments in the antebellum period including the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision, The Compromise of 1850 and the Wilmot Proviso. These debates were further fueled by the Garrisonian anti-slavery movement in the 1840’s and made the decade leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments perhaps the most divisive period in American history. Post-bellum debates on the Three-fifths Clause quieted until the turn of the century, when scholarly research tended to take an anachronistic view on the matter, most notably with the Progressive-era Beardian economic origins and the neo-Garrisonian debates of the modern Civil Rights era. Finally, in the 21st century, views have begun take on a more moderate position espousing a combination of factors creating what some still call a pro-slavery Constitution. My final assessment concludes that the “pro-slavery” clauses in the Constitution were incidental to more significant concerns of the Convention delegates. The security, unity and economic stability of the nation was at stake and these issues took primacy leading to several compromises, including the Three-fifths Clause, to ensure ratification. Unfortunately, these compromises, regardless of their origins, the delegates’ intentions and several civil rights-inspired Constitutional amendments, remain to many, evidence of a pro-slavery Constitution.
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