Misconceptions of the Three-Fifths Compromise

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The Three-Fifths Compromise is one of the more infamous policies in U.S. history. It is known for establishing that, when measuring the population of states, a slave will be measured as only three-fifths the equivalent of one free person. It was a compromise between those in favor of slavery and those against it.

This is the extent of the average American’s knowledge of this policy, and for that reason, it is often criticized for its racist claim that a black person is only three-fifths a person compared to a white person. Critics will then assert that the correct policy position would be to count them as five-fifths a person, equal to that of a free citizen. This is a noble assertion, but unfortunately it lacks historical context.

The average person might be surprised to hear that during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, it was actually the pro-slavery side that wanted slaves to be equally represented when measuring population. The debate was not over an abstract definition of the worth of a slave, but instead a matter of determining a state’s influence in Congress.

States that were pro-slavery wanted a slave to be counted equal to that of a regular citizen. This meant a higher population in states with more slaves, which led to more influence in Congress. For the same reason, states that were anti-slavery didn’t want slaves to be counted at all.

For the government to measure one person as less than another is clearly morally atrocious. But the U.S. government, along with many other governments across the world, was already doing this by condoning (and even enforcing) slavery. To allow one human being to own another is an admission that one has rights that the other does not. The anti-slavery side at the time understood that not counting slaves as part of the population was far less oppressive to slaves than allowing the pro-slavery side to have greater influence in the legislature.

There is legitimate criticism of the Three-Fifths Compromise, but in the opposite direction that many would think. By counting slaves (even partially) as part of the population, state governments were given an incentive to promote slavery, not abolish it. Pro-slavery states were given more power in Congress, which slowly diminished as northern (anti-slavery) states increased in population at a quicker rate.

Southern (pro-slavery) states used this to their advantage by importing more slaves to increase their political power until 1808, when this practice was banned. Since slaves couldn’t vote, the states could raise their population without having to worry about new voter influence. Even after the ban, it’s believed that southern states continued to illegally import slaves, and even engaged in illegally “breeding” them.

In essence, the Three-Fifths Compromise was an ugly administrative middle ground caused by the much greater problem of slavery. Southern states advocated for “equal representation” of slaves in population measurements only to increase their own power in denying them equal rights by expanding and incentivizing slavery.

Unequal representation as a number in a government census book was a small price to pay in return for denying some political power and influence to pro-slavery states.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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