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.