The Three-fifths Compromise was an agreement reached during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention over the counting of slaves in determining a state's total population. This count would determine the number of seats in the House of Representatives and how much each state would pay in taxes. The compromise counted three-fifths of each state's slave population toward that state's total population for the purpose of apportioning the House of Representatives. Even though slaves were denied voting rights, this gave Southern states more Representatives and more presidential electoral votes than if slaves had not been counted. It also gave slaveholders similarly enlarged powers in Southern legislatures; this was an issue in the secession of West Virginia from Virginia in 1863. Free blacks and indentured servants were not subject to the compromise, and each was counted as one full person for representation.
In the United States Constitution, the Three-fifths Compromise is part of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) later superseded this clause and explicitly repealed the compromise.
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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 [italics added].
Drafting and ratification
The three-fifths ratio originated with an amendment proposed to the Articles of Confederation on April 18, 1783.: 112  The amendment was to have changed the basis for determining the wealth of each state, and hence its tax obligations, from real estate to population, as a measure of ability to produce wealth. The proposal by a committee of the Congress had suggested that taxes "shall be supplied by the several colonies in proportion to the number of inhabitants of every age, sex, and quality, except Indians not paying taxes".: 51  The South immediately objected to this formula since it would include slaves, who were viewed primarily as property, in calculating the amount of taxes to be paid. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his notes on the debates, the Southern states would be taxed "according to their numbers and their wealth conjunctly, while the northern would be taxed on numbers only".: 51–52
After proposed compromises of one-half by Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and three-fourths by several New Englanders failed to gain sufficient support, Congress finally settled on the three-fifths ratio proposed by James Madison.: 53 But this amendment ultimately failed, falling two states short of the unanimous approval required to amend the Articles of Confederation (New Hampshire and New York opposed it).
When he presented his plan for the frame of government to the Convention on its first day, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that for the purposes of apportionment, a "House of Delegates" be determined through the apportionment of "one Member for every thousand Inhabitants 3/5 of Blacks included." The Convention unanimously accepted the principle that representation in the House of Representatives would be in proportion to the relative state populations, but it initially rejected his proposal regarding apportionment of the black population along with the rest of his plan. However, since slaves could not vote, leaders in slave states would thus have the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College. Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free inhabitants of each state be counted for apportionment purposes, while delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, opposed the proposal, wanting slaves to count in their actual numbers.
The proposal to count slaves by a three-fifths ratio was first presented on June 11, and agreed to by nine states to two with only a brief debate.: 143–4 It was debated at length between July 9 and 13 (inclusive) when it was initially voted down by the members present at the Convention six to four. A few Southern delegates, seeing an opportunity, then proposed full representation for their slave population; most states voted no. Seeing that the states could not remain united about counting the slaves as five-fifths without some sort of compromise measure, the ratio of three-fifths was brought back to the table and agreed to by eight states to two.: 416
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Gouverneur Morris from New York doubted that a direct tax, whose burden on Southern states would be increased by the Three-fifths Compromise, could be effectively leveled on the vast United States. The primary ways of generating federal revenue, he said, would be excise taxes and import duties, which would tax the North more than the South; therefore, the taxation provision was irrelevant, and the compromise would only increase the number of pro-slavery legislators.: 33
Compromise and enactment
After a contentious debate, the compromise that was finally agreed upon—of counting "all other persons" as only three-fifths of their actual numbers—reduced the representation of the slave states relative to the original proposals, but improved it over the Northern position. An inducement for slave states to accept the Compromise was its tie to taxation in the same ratio, so that the burden of taxation on the slave states was also reduced.
A contentious issue at the 1787 Constitutional Convention was whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation of the states in the Congress or would instead be considered property and, as such, not be considered for purposes of representation. Delegates from states with a large population of slaves argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation, but as property if the new government were to levy taxes on the states on the basis of population. Delegates from states where slavery had become rare argued that slaves should be included in taxation, but not in determining representation.
The proposed ratio was, however, a ready solution to the impasse that arose during the Constitutional Convention. In that situation, the alignment of the contending forces was the reverse of what had been obtained under the Articles of Confederation in 1783. In amending the Articles, the North wanted slaves to count for more than the South did because the objective was to determine taxes paid by the states to the federal government. In the Constitutional Convention, the more important issue was representation in Congress, so the South wanted slaves to count for more than the North did.: 397
Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own.... They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together.... Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?
Before the Civil War
By including three-fifths of slaves (who had no voting rights) in the legislative apportionment, the Three-fifths Compromise provided additional representation in the House of Representatives of slave states compared to the free states. In 1793, for example, Southern slave states had 47 of the 105 seats, but would have had 33 had seats been assigned based on free populations. In 1812, slave states had 76 seats out of 143 instead of the 59 they would have had; in 1833, 98 seats out of 240, instead of 73. As a result, Southern states had additional influence on the presidency, the speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court until the American Civil War.: 56–57 In addition, the Southern states' insistence on equal numbers of slave and free states, which was maintained until 1850, safeguarded the Southern bloc in the Senate as well as Electoral College votes.
Historian Garry Wills has speculated that without the additional slave state votes, Jefferson would have lost the presidential election of 1800. Also, "slavery would have been excluded from Missouri ... Jackson's Indian removal policy would have failed ... the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico ... the Kansas-Nebraska bill would have failed.": 5–6 While the Three-fifths Compromise could be seen to favor Southern states because of their large slave populations, for example, the Connecticut Compromise tended to favor the Northern states (which were generally smaller). Support for the new Constitution rested on the balance of these sectional interests.
Before the Civil War aspects of the Constitution were subject for significant debate by abolitionists. The Garrisonian view (William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), a prominent American abolitionist best known for his widely read anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator of the 1830s) of the Constitution was that it was a pro-slavery document and only completely dividing the Union could satisfy the cause of anti-slavery. Following a bitter series of public debates including one with George Thompson, Frederick Douglass took another view and pointed to the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, saying the following:
But giving the provisions the very worse construction, what does it amount to? I answer—It is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation. A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.
After the Civil War
Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) later superseded Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 and explicitly repealed the compromise. It provides that "representatives shall be apportioned ... counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed." A later provision of the same clause reduced the Congressional representation of states who denied the right to vote to adult male citizens, but this provision was never effectively enforced. (The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1865, had already eliminated almost all persons from the original clause's jurisdiction by banning slavery; the only remaining persons subject to it were those sentenced for a crime to penal servitude, which the amendment excluded from the ban.)
After the Reconstruction Era came to an end in 1877, the former slave states subverted the objective of these changes by using terrorism and other deplorable tactics to disenfranchise their black citizens, while obtaining the benefit of apportionment of representatives on the basis of the total populations. These measures effectively gave white Southerners even greater voting power than they had in the antebellum era, inflating the number of Southern Democrats in the House of Representatives as well as the number of votes they could exercise in the Electoral College in the election of the president.
The disenfranchisement of black citizens eventually attracted the attention of Congress, and, in 1900, some members proposed stripping the South of seats, related to the number of people who were barred from voting. In the end, Congress did not act to change apportionment, largely because of the power of the Southern bloc. The Southern bloc comprised Southern Democrats voted into office by white voters and constituted a powerful voting bloc in Congress until the 1960s. Their representatives, re-elected repeatedly by one-party states, controlled numerous chairmanships of important committees in both houses on the basis of seniority, giving them control over rules, budgets and important patronage projects, among other issues. Their power allowed them to defeat federal legislation against racial violence and abuses in the South, until overcome by the civil rights movement.
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