Congress and the Three-Fifths Clause of our

Constitution

There was quite a bit of press back in January when our Constitution was read in the U.S. House of Representatives, with passages omitted. Especially passages concerning slavery, and most specifically the passage which has been referred to as the “three-fifths clause,” which counted slaves as “three-fifths of all other persons.” Here’s a sample article from the Washington Post.

This is currently a hot topic, so this article was written to put this subject into perspective.

From The People’s Guide to the United States Constitution, here is Article I, Section 2, which contains this clause:

Representatives and direct taxes [A “direct tax” is a tax placed on a person or organization. Examples of direct taxes would be income taxes and property taxes where persons or organizations are taxed. An “indirect tax,” on the other hand, taxes goods or services. Sales taxes are an example of an indirect tax.] shall be apportioned [divided and allocated] 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 [someone who is not a slave], including those bound to service for a term of years [“a person bound to service for a term of years” would be a person who had a contract binding him to work for another person for a given length of time. It was common practice in the 1700’s for a person in Britain to sign such a contract and then come to America and work for a number of years in exchange for being brought over to America], and excluding Indians not taxed,three fifths of all other persons. The actual enumeration [a listing or specifying of something. In this case, it would specify how many people live in each state and that number of people would determine how many representatives each state would receive] shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such a manner as they shall by law direct. The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to choose three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations [the name of four early settlements in what is now Rhode Island] one, Connecticut five, New York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.

Our Constitution was a compromise between competing interests. On the subject of slavery, the northern states wanted to include within the Constitution a design that would end the slave trade. However, since representation in the House of Representatives was to be based on each state’s population, allowing the Southern states to count their entire population would increase their representation, making any attempts by abolitionists within Congress to end slavery much more difficult.

The final compromise reached was that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person for both representation and tax purposes, which was similar to the arrangements under the existing Articles of Confederation. The South wanted the slave trade to continue indefinitely, but compromised that it would end within twenty years in exchange for prohibiting taxes on exports.

This issue of slavery in Colonial America and later the United States is a vast and grim subject. Prior to the Civil War, many Americans believed the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, including Frederick Douglas, a runaway slave who would later become perhaps the most famous African-American of the nineteenth century. Escaping from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838, Douglas made his way to New York to find freedom. Because of his exceptional skills as an orator and original thinker, he became the leading advocate for abolition of slavery in the mid-to-late 1800s.

After a careful study of the Constitution, Douglas came to see our Founding Fathers’ principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution not as pro-slavery, but as strongly anti-slavery. He did not ignore that the Founding Fathers had failed to resolve the problem of slavery which had been introduced by the British much earlier, but he did recognize that while many Founding Fathers were themselves slave owners, many others were staunch and determined abolitionists. Most importantly, after his study of the Constitution, Douglas spoke and wrote of how each portion of the Constitution which refers to slavery actually condemned it. For example, he stated in 1860, “Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free [states] over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”

Douglas felt the actual language of the Constitution meant that many of its writers intended for the eventual ending of slavery via legal avenues, but by 1860, he came to realize that slavery would need to be defeated by a civil war, which did began a year later.