On the recent trip to James Madison’s Montpelier, I examined its exhibits about the “three-fifths clause.” Often today we tend to see that provision in the Constitution as saying that slaves were only three-fifths of a person, but that was not the constitutional point. The clause, which is in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, states, “Representatives [for the House of 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.” Free blacks were thus counted the same as whites, as were indentured servants. The number of slaves, although that term was carefully avoided, were multiplied by 60% and added to the free population for the apportionment of Representatives.
Southerners at the Constitutional Convention were not stating that slaves were only three-fifths of a person. For apportionment of the House of Representatives, they wanted slaves to be counted as whites. It would have meant greater representation for the South. Northerners, not surprisingly, resisted their being counted at all. The result was the famous three-fifths compromise. Thus, southern states had a greater number of Representatives than would have been the case if slaves had not been counted at all, but less than would have been the case if slaves had been fully counted. (Slavery existed in the northern states at that time, but the number of slaves in the North was minuscule compared to the South.)
Of course, it seems outrageous today that states could have more power in the national government because they had large numbers of slaves, people without legal rights who, of course, could not vote, but we should remember that the country was not a democratic one. In most, if not all states, a man could vote only if he held a certain amount of property, and this comprised only a fraction of white males, even though all were fully counted in the apportionment. And, of course, women could not vote, even though fully counted. And throughout our history even until today, children and non-citizens, who cannot vote, are counted for apportioning the House. Representatives have always represented more people than just those who can legally vote.
The three-fifths clause in the Constitution not only meant that large slave states would have greater power in the House than other states, it also assured that the presidency would be largely controlled by Virginia at the beginning of the Union. As we have been reminded at least twice in the last two decades, the President is not elected by the people but by electors. The Constitution provides, “Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Southern states not only had more Representatives because of the three-fifths clause, they also had more electors.
This effect of the three-fifths compromise had important consequences. For example, Jefferson beat John Adams for the presidency in 1800 and won 73 electors while Adams won 65. However, if slaves had not been considered in apportioning Representatives, the Montpelier exhibit showed that Adams would have had a majority in the electoral college. With the three-fifths clause, it is not surprising that four out of our first five presidents called Virginia home.
As I pondered this information, I wondered how our country would have been different without the constitutional compromise. I also wondered if Jefferson ever thanked God or Providence or the stars for the institution of slavery not just because of the privileged life that institution afforded him but also for his Presidency.
(To be continued at random times.)