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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Impact of the 3/5 Compromise

Our Founding Fathers were not perfect. Contrary to what we often hear via talk radio, the Internet or even in school, the men (and women) who helped build the American Republic were deeply flawed individuals who made more than their fair share of mistakes.

Of course, most of us recognize that our Founding Fathers were, in the end, humans, but too often we shy away from shedding too much light on some of the more serious mistakes they made. It is far more preferable to esteem these men as marble demigods whose images grace our currency.  This isn't to say that we should refrain from paying homage to our nation's founders. I for one strongly believe that the generation that brought us the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, etc. could easily be labeled as the "Greatest Generation" in all of American history (sorry, WWII vets. I still love ya!).

And there are plenty of pundits who are more than willing to point out where they believe our Founding Fathers went wrong. For example, Glenn Beck, America's favorite whack-job, believes that the gravest error made by our nation's founders was to not clarify the language of the Second Amendment.  HBO's Bill Maher believes that the greatest mistake made by the founding generation was that they should have extended the separation of church and state even further.  And Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, believes that their greatest mistake was not establishing term limits for Congressmen.

And though I can see how all three men arrived at their respective conclusions, I vehemently disagree with them all.  The language of the Second Amendment, the separation of church and state, and congressional term limits are small potatoes when compared to the biggest mistake our Founding Fathers made.

During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison noted an important observation that he and virtually every other delegate had made. He claimed that of all the difficulties separating Northern and Southern states, slavery was by far the biggest. It was the elephant in the room that nobody wanted to address specifically, but also nobody could ignore completely. Southern concern for preserving their "peculiar institution" led to more discord than any other issue that came before the Convention.

To make a very long story short, the Convention eventually agreed to a compromise that was later enshrined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution:
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 Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons (my emphasis).  
Without even affording them the dignity of calling them what they were, all Black slaves (referred to here as "all other persons") were to be counted as 3/5 of a person in the national census.  The reason was simple: Southern leadership, who were more than aware of the North's superior population numbers, feared that they would be misrepresented in Congress.  Counting all Black slaves as 3/5 of a person, however, would even the odds and afford the South greater representation.  This, along with the Constitutional protection of slavery, helped to ease Southern concerns. Their "property rights" were now protected by federal law.

And they were right.

What became known as the 3/5 Compromise ended up having a dramatic impact in the South's ability to enforce their will on the whole of the infant American nation.  The first major example of how the 3/5 Compromise effected national politics was the Presidential Election of 1800.  In that election, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams by only 7 electoral votes.  And though Jefferson managed to win a few key states in the North, The Electoral College map clearly shows the first of many divisions that would separate the North and the South:


As the votes were counted, Northern politicians quickly realized that without the 3/5 Compromise, Jefferson would have been defeated. The fact that slaves were being counted as part of the South's representation (without having any actual say in their government) had given Jefferson the victory; an ironic historical reality considering the fact that Jefferson himself kept 300+ souls in bondage to himself.

Later elections would have the same results.  The election of James Madison in 1812 and Martin Van Buren in 1836, were also determined in large part by the South's inflated electoral numbers that were caused by the 3/5 Compromise.

And it wasn't just in presidential elections that the 3/5 Compromise left its impression. Renowned historian Gary Wills contends that the 3/5 Compromise impacted a great number of historical events in the early republic:
Without the 3/5 Compromise, slavery would have been excluded from Missouri...Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy would have failed...the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico...the Kansas/Nebraska bill would have failed...and the likelihood of Civil War would have been dramatically reduced.
It is a cruel irony of history that the South's ability to exert its will, especially with regards to protecting slavery, was a self-inflicted wound that our Founding Fathers brought upon the infant American republic.  How much damage could have been averted is impossible to determine. The historical sin of "presentism" should prevent us from making such speculations.  But what is certain (with and without the lens of hindsight) is that the 3/5 Compromise was a tremendous blunder on the part of our nation's founders. It is an ugly skeleton in the American closet that should be seen for what it was: a terrible attempt to pacify a nation that was determined to keep its Black brothers and sisters in bondage in the "Land of the Free."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello! I was just wondering where Gary Wills said.. "Without the 3/5 Compromise, slavery would have been excluded from Missouri...Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy would have failed...the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico...the Kansas/Nebraska bill would have failed...and the likelihood of Civil War would have been dramatically reduced."
Thanks!