Kevin Jackson Fails History

On Fox News yesterday, host Laura Ingraham brought on two Black guests to respond to Spike Lee’s strong statements attacking Trump as Racist. Media Matters has the video, and a transcript of a small slice of what was said. What they found remarkable was Kevin Jackson’s statement to Leo Terrell, Ingraham’s other guest, that

the Three-Fifths Compromise was essentially what this particular gentleman doesn’t understand was it was to give humanhood to black people. Spike Lee learned that and it was an embarassment to him.

It’s no surprise to any readers here that he’s wrong. But here’s the thing. Quite a number of people don’t understand the 3/5th compromise. Quite a number of you reading this, I’m sure, don’t understand the Three-Fifths Compromise, if by “number” we include “one or possibly two out of both my readers”. One and two are both numbers, right? Okay then. That out of the way, let’s take a look at why Jackson is wrong.

The 3/5ths language appears in this section of the 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.

So this is language deciding how much political power (how many Representatives in the US House of Reps + how many presidential electors in the Electoral College, which elsewhere was set for each state as the total of that state’s Reps + that state’s senators) should be granted to the different states and also how much of the tax burden should fall on each state.

Though it’s obvious to those who think about the compromise in context, most don’t realize that speaking generally, slave owners had an interest in slaves counting as full persons while abolitionists would have an interest in slaves counting not at all. Why? One member of the house of representatives in 1790 was assigned per 33,000 people, on average. Since only free white men were voting, one free white man with 33,000 fully-counted slaves could elect a representative to congress with just his single vote and thus have a larger effect on the law than a white man in a free state who might compete with 10,000 others to determine the outcome of a congressional election. It also meant that by importing more slaves, the slave states were more likely to grow quicker than free states, maintaining or enlarging any advantage in political representation. This was crucial to slave owners’ long term plan to defend the institution of slavery from future laws that might limit or ban it.

There was some Northern power to force a compromise on this point, however. Part of that power came from strong concern that England might try to reconquer its former colonies, and that failure to form a union would leave them vulnerable to being picked off one by one. England itself, far less dependent on the economics of slavery, was also more willing to consider banning it. The slave states had some important reasons to feel the greater risk came from Briton.

But also, remember that what we call The Constitution is in fact the second constitution. The first was a document called “The Articles of Confederation”. It didn’t work out very well, as might be expected for a first attempt at constitutional democracy in an age where war was still a recourse of first resort for many political conflicts. One of the ideas that hadn’t worked out well was the apportionment of taxes to support the federal government according to the monetary value of the land in each state. This actually encouraged each state to take steps that would cause land within its borders to lose value. And while that seemed like a good short-term answer to residents’ desires for lower taxes, this 1780s race to the bottom had negative economic impacts for nearly everyone. The only alternative that seemed workable was apportionment based on population. And so that hypothetical white man who owned 33,000 other human beings? His tax burden would likely be 33,000 times as high if those slaves were fully counted in the census.

Thus the slave-holders ideal solution would be to have the human beings they owned counted fully for representation but not at all for taxation. That proposal simply wouldn’t fly with the Northerners present at the Constitutional Convention. It was clear that for anything to pass at all, it would have to treat owned persons the same for taxation as for representation. Once the slave owners agreed to that, then it was obvious some middle-ground compromise be reached. 1/4th, 1/2, and 3/4ths were all considered, and possibly other numbers as well, but 3/5ths is the one that stuck.

The upshot of all this is that when Kevin Jackson says that

the Three-Fifths Compromise was essentially … to give humanhood to black people

he’s clearly wrong. The Three-Fifths Compromise was, essentially, to shore up slave owners’ power to the limit of their ability to bear extra taxes while tempering slave owners’ power to the limit the free states could make up the difference for the tax break given to the slave owners. That compromise was necessary because the US saw itself likely to be fighting repeated wars against Britain if it showed military weakness. None of this was about the humanity of Black persons or any persons at all.

The Three-Fifths Compromise was about war, money, and power. That’s it.

Occasionally you’ll hear an apologist for racism spout off that it was actually slave states that wanted slaves to be fully counted. And I’m sure that they think that’s true, but remember that both slave and free states wanted both things simultaneously: slave states wanted full personhood when determining representation and zero personhood when determining taxation. Free states wanted the opposite.*1

Don’t be confused, and don’t allow them to frame the issue as about humanity. The truth is that even the Constitutional Convention delegations of white men from free states weren’t thinking primarily of slaves as persons whose dignity could be granted or withheld by the census provisions. To the extent that they were thinking about that at all, they would have been thinking about how the compromise might help shift congressional power over time and the ramifications that might hold for some future generation’s consideration of Black freedom and dignity. Perhaps some were genuinely interested in the success of a political movement for Black liberation, but Black liberation was not at issue in this fight. Not even Black personhood was at issue. At the risk of being redundant, it was all about how whites could unite themselves as a nation sufficiently for their common defense from other military powers while individually setting as favorable a field as possible for themselves in the upcoming white struggle for money and power within the boundaries of the new nation.

*1: Though of course these are generalizations. The original states were made up of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people, each with their own opinions.



  1. chigau (違う) says

    I’m starting to think that *TheConstitution* of the USofA might be … flawed.

  2. jazzlet says

    I didn’t know anything about the Three-Fifths Compromise, but I’m British and didn’t do any American history in school, I’ve just picked up what I know haphazadly, so thank you for the explanation.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    You’re very welcome, jazzlet!

  4. kestrel says

    *massive face palm* Good glob. Now I have to wonder if people are simply not being taught actual history in school, or if they did not pay attention.

    I myself was taught some pretty dodgy stuff in school, and when I got out and learned better I was FURIOUS at being lied to. If the case is people are not being taught about this I guess I can have some sympathy… but good grief, it seems like there’s not much excuse these days. You can look this stuff up on your freaking phone.

  5. suttkus says

    “And while that seemed like a good short-term answer to residents’ desires for lower taxes, this 1880s race to the bottom had negative economic impacts for nearly everyone.”

    Don’t you mean the 1780’s?

  6. fledanow says

    In counting persons for the purpose of this clause, it is clear that the definition of “person” included more than just voters i.e.than white adult males (having a certain income or owning land, perhaps?). Were only men persons, or were women and children persons also?

  7. lumipuna says

    White women and children and black slaves and even General Lee’s horse may have been considered “persons” in some colloquial sense but clearly they had little personal autonomy, aside from not being able to vote.

    The number of women and children usually roughly corresponds to adult men in any given population, so it didn’t really matter how much they counted for political representation. Slaves were a separate population, and their number could be whatever, which made them a special case.

  8. blf says

    You can look this stuff up on your freaking phone.

    Yes, this point is really beginning to irk me. An example from about a year ago which still annoys me: I got to talking to a yacht’s captain and his first mate (both British). Both had been using their phones for various things, including showing off the captain’s family farm, which has an apparently-popular petting zoo — he visited the website and showed me pictures. Or in short, the phones were web-enabled, they had a connection, and they knew how to use the phone, web, and so on…

    Somehow, we got onto the subject of how the States’ presidential elections “work”. Whilst trying to explain the electoral college, the captain, at least, became insistent there are 52 — or possibly 51 — states. Neither one would believe me as I kept insisting there are only 50. (I’m very confident they weren’t trying to “wind up me” and sincerely believed there were 52 states.)

    And neither one used their phones…

    (I didn’t think, at the time, to suggest they try doing so. Can I blame the beer? (In retrospect, I wonder if they were confused by Washington DC having votes in the electoral college despite not being a state?))

  9. fledanow says

    to lumipuna,

    Sorry, I understand the point about the push and pull around the valuation of slaves in the clause, and the complete disinterest by the drafters in the slaves’ humanity. I just got caught up in a side issue: the legal definition in this particular case of “person”. I’m a bit fascinated by who and what has been considered a legal person in different circumstances.

  10. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    Thanks for the catch. I’ll fix it.

  11. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @fledanow, #6:

    For the purpose of the census, and thus for political representation, non-voters obviously count. Yes, women counted, and children. That total number of persons in a state determined how many representatives (and presidential electors) a state gets. The white men then vote to determine which candidates get to fill those positions.

    Our modern concept of dehumanization didn’t come into being until the spread of existentialist ethics and its focus on authenticity, the transcendent, and the universal.. Before then, the idea that one could be a “person” while lacking important qualities in common with other “persons” was an idea that seemed obvious (especially in which qualities could fail to be shared) in ways that would not seem obvious today.

  12. fledanow says

    Huh! I have never thought of it that way. I had only thought of the various legal definitions of “persons” as having to do with power and politics, in a hard-headed kind of way. Certainly, the wording of the Privy Council in the Persons Case never gave me cause to think of transcendence! 😉 But does all this boil down to: Who is a real person? (damn it, how do I put “real” into italics?) With the white man being the model of the real human person, of course.

  13. mediagoras says

    It’s difficult to know whether Mr. Jackson actually believes what he says. In any event, it does not reflect well on his mind and heart.

    Let’s take him at his word and assume he does believe it. This would entail the extraordinary conclusion that the original parties to the compromise were somehow giving “humanhood to black people” (a generosity or benevolence, to his mind) while at the same time permitting or doing some of the worst things anyone might do to other human beings. The apparent absurdity, contradiction, and barbarity of this does not seem to have been part of Mr. Jackson’s thinking on the matter.

  14. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    Certainly, the wording of the Privy Council in the Persons Case never gave me cause to think of transcendence!

    Edwards v. Canada (A.G.) was decided by the JCPC before World War II. Though some elements of what would become known as existentialism and existentialist ethics were present before WWII, I’m not sure that they were well known quite as early as Edwards was decided in 1928. Kierkegaard has been retroactively determined to be an existentialist, but he wasn’t part of the existentialist movement and his ethics has a lot to do with Christianity. (From what I understand, he was deeply Christian, though also deeply opposed to the institution of the Church especially when entangled with government in ways too complex to explore here.) In Christianity, what makes a “person” is the soul, and though I’m not sure of this given his focus on the ethical obligations imposed by reason and the many Kierkegaard writings I’ve not read, I don’t think that Kierkegaard said anything to contradict the idea that souls make humans unique or even to indicate he didn’t believe in a soul. And, in any case, there wasn’t any widespread awareness of existentialism until after WWII.

    Part of the reason for the wave of positive responses to existentialist ethics post-WWII was the widespread commitment to “never again” allowing atrocities such as the Holocaust to occur. None of the prevailing ethical theories had managed to prevent or stop the Holocaust, and so people turned to existentialism with its focus on the transcendent and universal, hoping that a “we are the world” or “we are one” spirit could stop future targeting of individual sub-populations as had been common in Europe for hundreds of years. (Targeting entirely separate populations had, of course, been a feature of human aggression, violence and war since before recorded history.)

    But does all this boil down to: Who is a real person?

    Well, existentialism certainly focuses on real in the way you’re suggesting, though it would be more traditional to call it authenticity in the existentialist context. Yes, I think that existentialist thinking probably would solve some of these problems, but simply asking “Who is a real person?” in the late 18th century would not have been enough for force recognition of the evil done by dehumanization even without slavery. (Some have argued that slavery is made possible by dehumanization, and that therefore it is the original sin of the US and its precursor colonies, not slavery itself.)


    (damn it, how do I put “real” into italics?)

    It’s fairly easy. You use those less-than(<) and greater-than(>)signs as if they were brackets and put commands within them. The commands themselves are also used in pairs. You use the same command (called a “tag”) to begin a modification or process as to end it, with the exception that you have to use a backslash after the < and before the tag. Here are a couple examples:

    i for “italics”
    <i>real</i> = real

    em for “emphasis”
    <em>real</em> = real

    Note that programming that is already on the site decides exactly what “emphasis” means. While on almost all sites it will be rendered as italics, it’s possible that it might not and be rendered as bold instead.

    Bold uses the “b” tag:
    <b>real</b> = real

    That’s enough for most of what you need on your own text, but when quoting someone else you might want to use the “blockquote” tag to make it clear when words belong to someone else:

    <blockquote>real</blockquote> =


    If you search online for “html tag” you can find plenty more. There was a long period when I used to play around with “abbr” because it allows you to insert extra text that is only visible when someone’s cursor hovers over a particular bit of text.

    <abbr title=”secret message”>real</b> = real

    Have fun!

  15. fledanow says

    @Crip Dyke,

    Thank you. I am just beginning to realize the depth of the ignorance with which I read your posts. I am really glad you are willing to explain, and to so so without arrogance or snideness. I haven’t studied philosophy, beyond one confusing first year course, because I found it difficult to trust speculation without facts (“Well, why can’t we just change the rules, then?”) That’s what comes from being raised by a scientist, i suppose. Its left me uncultured and uncivilized, ‘though rational, usually.

  16. microraptor says

    kestrel @4:

    This was on FAUX News, so odds are good that they were actively lying and trying to rewrite history.

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