Apologetics three-fifths

Published on January 11th, 2011 | by Gary DeMar


The Original Constitution and the Three-Fifths Myth

Lanny Davis is a lawyer, a graduate of Yale Law School and from 1996 to 1998 he served as a special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He and Jay Sekulow appeared together on “The Sean Hannity Show” to discuss the reading of the Constitution by the new Congress. Davis wanted to know if the “three-fifths” clause would be read, implying that it was a racist part of the Constitution. Mr. Sekulow did not have time to take on this issue, but he shouldn’t have had to. Mr. Davis should know that the “three-fifths” clause has nothing to do with the idea that black slaves were being described as “three-fifths” of a white person. If he doesn’t know this, then he shouldn’t be practicing law, and if does know this and perpetuates the falsehood in order to gain some political edge, then he shouldn’t be practicing law.

The issue of slavery was a major concern at the Constitutional Convention and was discussed at length in the debates. A significant minority of the delegates to the Federal Convention were staunch opponents of slavery, primarily those who adhered to the Federalist philosophy. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton opposed slavery. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice of the United States, was president of the New York anti-slavery society. Northern Federalist leaders Rufus King and Gouvernour Morris were outspoken opponents of slavery and the slave trade.

Elias Boudinot (1740–1821), who was a lawyer, served three congressional terms representing New Jersey (1789–1795), was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and presided as President of the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1783, making him the chief executive officer of the United States. Boudinot signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War. He was an early opponent of slavery. “Southern and Border State Federalists also openly opposed the institution.”(1) Many people do not know that the original Constitution words “race,” “slavery,” “slave,” “white,” or “black.” Such omissions are curious since there are many who view the Constitution as a racist document. Actually, the word “slavery” did not enter the Constitution until after the War Between the States in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

The so-called racist intent of the Constitution is seen by some (many?) in the “three-fifths clause” found in Article I, section 2, clause 3. Contrary to what some historians claim, the “three-fifths clause” is a clear indication that a number of our constitutional founders wanted to end slavery; it is not a statement about personhood. The Northern states did not want to count slaves. The Southern states hoped to include slaves in the population statistics in order to acquire additional representation in Congress to advance their political position.

It took 30,000 people to get one congressman, and slaves outnumbered whites in slave states. It was the Democrat hope that with enough pro-slavery congressmen, they could overturn much of the abolitionist legislation Northern Republicans had previously passed.

However, there was one philosophical problem: blacks in Southern states had no rights thus The North deemed it a joke they only be counted when beneficial to Democrats. Northern abolitionists argued that since the South considered blacks their property, all ‘property’ should be counted for the purpose of determining congressional representation. Thus the Northern abolitionists would include their property: horses, cattle, homes, furniture, pets, etc. in their population tallies.

The South denounced the proposal, so anti-slavery northerner James Wilson of Pennsylvania came up with a compromise. Blacks in the Southern states would be counted as “three-fifths” of a person. That way, it would take 50,000 people (instead of 30,000) in a district to earn congressional representation. That had the effect of limiting the power of the slave states.

The compromise was to count slaves as “three-fifths” of a person for representation purposes. The fewer slaves counted the fewer number of representatives. “It had NOTHING to do with the worth of a person and EVERYTHING to do with diminishing the power of” the pro-slavery Southern states.

The goal of the Northern delegates was to dilute Southern voting strength so as to outlaw slavery by constitutional means. “The struggle that took place in the convention was between the Southern delegates trying to strengthen the constitutional supports for slavery and the Northern delegates trying to weaken them.”(2) If none of the slaves had been included in the population count for representation, as Northern delegates wanted, the slave states would have had only 41 percent of the seats in the House. If all the slaves had been included, as the pro-slave states wanted, the slave states would have had 50 percent of the seats. By agreeing to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes, the slaveholding states ended up with a minority voting position—47 percent. Robert L. Goldwin concludes:

[T]he point is that the “three-fifths clause” had nothing at all to do with measuring the human worth of blacks. Northern delegates did not want black slaves included, not because they thought them unworthy of being counted, but because they wanted to weaken the slaveholding power in Congress. Southern delegates wanted every slave to count “equally with the Whites,” not because they wanted to proclaim that black slaves were human beings on an equal footing with free white persons, but because they wanted to increase the pro-slavery voting power in Congress. The humanity of blacks was not the subject of the three-fifths clause; voting power in Congress was the subject.(3)

Was it right for the Northern delegates to agree to this compromise? We will never know. Second guessing the actions of men who lived two-hundred years ago is a waste of time and energy. Distorting the facts of history is reprehensible. Lanny Davis should know better.Endnotes:

  1. Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina, American Statesmen on Slavery and the Negro (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971), 48.()
  2. Robert A. Goldwin, “Why Blacks, Women & Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution,” Commentary (May 1987), 29.()
  3. “Why Blacks, Women & Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution,” 30.()
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About the Author

Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).

12 Responses to The Original Constitution and the Three-Fifths Myth

  1. suanye says:

    trhis is ridiculous look at everything youve written so your basis as to why its not racst is bevause they never wanted to include slaves as a part of the population in order to weaken slavery – shoot yourself for believing that is the truth – sn you sound like a dumb ass trying to cover up the mistaekes of our founding fathers – do me a favor – go play jumprope in traffic!!!!!!!

  2. Thomas says:

    The United States Constitution is a territorial one set out in the Northwest Ordinance, while the actual Constitution is know as “this Constitution” which was ratified by every state of the Union in order for that specific territory within the Northwest Ordinance to become a state of this Constitution under the Articles of Confederacy which is part of the Organic Laws and are in force against the United States and which is owned by the United States of America by the Union of states. While the United States territorial governance is limited to what is left of the Northwest Ordinance, the District of Columbia and some Islands. In order to study the Organic laws you must start from the begining and end with the Northwest Ordinance in detail and pay very close attention to each word aa used along with use of English grammer. Most people are not United States citizens or Citizens of the United States, for they do not fall within that definition within the Codes either U.S. or state revised. In essence most fall under Article IV of the Articles of Confederacy. Here is an example, “one has to be 18 to vote, well that is fine but 18 is not 21 for 21 is common law age of adult hood while anyone under is a minor and sure I know you all think that 18 is not but you have not studied the text of the Organic Law, so lets take this further one has to be twenty five to be a representative, but once you read the clause you will find out it reads 18 and 7 years a resident of the United States and a Senator will read 21 and 14 years a resident of the United States which comes to 35, so ask yourself if you have been the age of 18 and lived 7 years in the United States which means you would have to have lived in the District of Columbia or a Nationa Park, a Fort, a Port, or Needful Building, and the same would go for a Senator. Should you beleive that the Organic laws do not exist I suggest you look at title one of the United States Code, its right there and it is the law and congress, Senate, President of United States, Judges all know it. Just one last note, the President elected to be President of the United States of America elect at any point in history has only taken the Oath of President of the United States, and oath of an employee not the subscribed Oath as President of the United States of America for it has not been Adopted even though it is in force by ratification of the Articles of Confederacy by the Original states Constitutions, the ones with established borders.

  3. Constitution Faith says:

    This is trite. You argue that the three-fifths compromise had nothing to do with personhood, a term left undefined leaving readers to wonder what you mean by personhood; is it some philosophical/theological conception? However, you fail to recognize that the reason that debate was occurring at all was because the South didn’t think that blacks were human beings. In the South’s eyes, blacks were subhuman animals fit for enslavement. The North thought it was hypocritical to count blacks for purposes of representation but not grant them their full rights as human beings and citizens of the United States. So what if the word person in the Constitution does not mean personhood in some philosophical/theological sense; the point is that the underlying issue was that the South didn’t think blacks were persons or human beings to begin with. Also, the word slavery didn’t make it into the Constitution because the drafters knew how morally problematic the institution of slavery was, especially for a nation that declared that all men were created equal with certain inalienable rights. Slavery was shameful and that it is mentioned only obliquely in the Constitution attests to that fact. To say that the implicit acceptance of slavery in our original constitution did not somehow taint it is, I believe, to ignore our history that encompasses a Civil War, amendments to the Constitution that altered the balance of power between Federal and State governments, the fight to end Jim Crow, and the fight for civil rights and other moments in our history that are just as important as the founding.

    • william rivas says:

      The humanity of blacks was not the subject of the three-fifths clause; voting power in Congress was the subject.

      The above is just a cheap excuse. These people back in the days were nothing but a buch of racists ignorants. It is documented in the constitution that they gave the blacks that definition for political gain and because that’s how they felt about black people anyways.

      Can you emagine something like that happening now in days?? I bet there would be lots of civil unrest all over the country.

      Scholars lawyers excuses excuses. what is wrong is wrong no need to clean after what happened over 100 years ago.

  4. Excellent and accurate paper, Gary.

    I expect the reason for Gary’s article is to correct some widespread misunderstandings (illustrated by some of the comments herein) about what the U.S. Constitution really says about slavery. This is a real problem because many black Americans mischaractize the U.S. Constitution as a “racist” document. Hence, they do not support it. THAT is a problem – which is worsened by all who spread misinformation about the Constitution on this issue.

    At the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, slavery was widespread, if not universal. Article I, Sec. 9, U.S. Constitution, was OUR PROCLAIMATION to the World that WE were going to abolish the slave trade. This was a radical statement!

    And note the words of James Madison in Federalist No. 42 (6th para), commenting on Art. I, Sec. 9 :

    “It were doubtless to be wished that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation….It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy…”

    Madison goes on (in the same para) to refer to this “unnatural traffic”, and

    “…Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethern”

    In 1807, Congress passed the Act To Prohibit the Importation of Slaves. It took effect January 1, 1808 (the earliest day possible). Here is a link to the text of the Act: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/sl004.asp

    To sneer at the Constitution or our Framers for not outlawing slavery altogether in the original Constitution of 1787 is to make the Perfect the deadly enemy of the Good. And I submit that if any of the “sneerers” have progressed along the road of santification, their progress has been slow. Shall we damn them because they don’t progress as fast as WE think they should?

    England abolished slavery in the 1830′s; Russia freed the serfs in the 1860′s, and other countries freed their slaves at about the same time.

    The Growth of God’s Kingdom on Earth is slow! We make a grave mistake when we sneer, malign, and abuse those who are doing the most they can under the circumstances to advance the Kingdom, for the reason that they aren’t doing it as fast as WE think they should do it. Such is moral preening and is distructive.

    Finally, note the following words in the Preamble to the Act Abolishing the Slave Trade:
    ” in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight”

    Would that be a reference to Jesus Christ? Is it “constitutional” to put this in an Act of Congress? YES! See, Art. VII, 2nd clause, U.S Constitution. Do you see? Our CONSTITUTION contains an express recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. PH

  5. K.L. Robbins says:

    The three-fifths clause or compromise had its origin in 1783 with the Articles of Confederations. At that time the north certainly wanted to count slaves,they wanted to count them at a rate three-quarters per slave, finally the three-fifths ratio was settled on and rejected. So you see,the north was in favor of the compromise when it was to their advantage.
    Some of the men you refer to as anti-slavery were themselves slavers. Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay in particular was a noted Northern hypocrite. Mr. Jay purchased slaves, worked them for several years until he made a profit on their work and then released them. This was a common practice in much of the north for many years. Many of these slaves were sold south before they reached the age of manumission. Quite often the mother would be sold and the children kept with the master.

    As to the question of why would northern delegates agree to the compromise . They were men,just like the southern delegates. They were after power.
    The references you have used for this essay lead me to believe that you lean a little to far to the left for my liking. Speaking to some of the comments of this essay, Slavery was not the greatest evil for this country. The greatest evil is now as it was then to deny the sovereignty of God in this nations affairs. Don’t be like the woman that stated that Christians should hold themselves to a higher standard than God. May God bless you with understanding and charity.

  6. Indigo Red says:

    Before I read the actual reason for 3/5 of a person compromise, I had a different explanation that works in a simple way, it’s still historically wrong though. Before the Constitution and the 3/5 rule, black slaves were 0/5 of a person. The Constitution established the majority of humanness of black slaves. Blacks needed to gain only the last 2/5 which was the hard part. I know, it’s crude and stupid, but it worked in many arguments because, obviously, 3/5 of a person was better than not a human being at all, which was the slave’s condition before the Constitution.

    • JEANNE says:

      Your argument made so much sense to me. I had never considered the 0/5 status of slaves. I only remembered hearing of the 3/5 clause and thinking it a travesty. I’m not convinced by this article that the clause was about politics rather than personhood, but I do think your logic leaves room for hope whichever way ones opinion falls. Thank you for opening my eyes!

  7. Gary DeMar says:

    No one said it wasn’t a compromise. The issue is the reason for the wording.

  8. JesusNotMoney says:

    I really don’t see a reason for this article. The Three Fifths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Compromise, and the Slave Trade Compromise were all Compromises that allowed slavery to continue. I don’t see how anyone can spin these to make them seem morally neutral or beneficial. They are bad things. The Framers did some bad things to get the United States to stay united and we’ve been paying for it ever since. Could we have had a united north and south without these? Not at the time. But I still don’t see how anyone gets around the idea that the Framers compromised morally to keep the Union together. Personally, that doesn’t surprise me in the least. The United States Constitution is the work of men, not God.

    • Jason says:

      To JesusNotMoney:

      In the constitution, slave importation was banned. The north demanded 3/5 law to prevent the south gaining more house seats, which means more government power.. What about the Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act? The north tried to stop the slavery from spreading. Have to remember, at the signed of the constitution, the new republic just concluded a war. The new republic could not got to war over slavery so soon. It was broke from the revolution. If the framers would have banned slavery right from the beginning, the south would have succeeded then and there. The founders new slavery was a problem, however, they could not stop at that time. It was the democrat south that wanted slavery and they push hard for its expansion. The founders did not compromise their morals, they instituted limitations on slavery and tried to prevent its spread. Have to look at history from their point of view. It is easy from todays standpoint and make easy judgments. There is no spin, facts are just hard to deal with.

      • JesusNotMoney says:

        Slave importation was not banned in the Constitution. Article I, Section 9 prohibits Congress from passing any laws limiting migration or importation of “such persons” as the States choose until 1808. Congress did pass a law to ban the Slave Trade once they were able and, of course, the 13th Amendment ended slavery. The North didn’t want the South getting any votes from their slave population for more reasons than simply because the South would have more say. Think about it. Why should someone who is viewed as chattel property count in a political exercise espccially when they will never be able to participate in those politics.
        I think you need to bone up a little on the particulars of early American history to refine your analysis of the issues. You may not be aware of how many States actually had slaves at the timing of the Ratification, for example. As to the South breaking away if slavery was denied from the start in the Constitution, you are correct that they would. BTW, I’m not judging the Framers. I’m pointing out that it is a moral compromise to condone slavery to keep the Union together. I’m not one of those guys who has a problem celebrating Columbus Day or who sits around bad-mouthing every historical figure of the past because they don’t accept a modern notion of human rights.

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