J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Real Lessons of the Three-Fifths Compromise

American historians’ Twitter feeds lit up yesterday with links and responses to an essay from James Wagner, the president of Emory University, extolling the value of compromise. Though the essay started talking about national politics, by the end it was clear that Wagner was also addressing the opposition to his program to change the university.

But what really raised eyebrows was the example of compromise Wagner chose to praise:
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union.
Wagner in the past has expressed regret about slavery on Emory’s behalf and written of the university’s “elective amnesia.” But he seems to have had a relapse.

Wagner’s new essay expresses an old view of the Constitution, casting the lifelong servitude of generations of Americans as an acceptable price for creating or preserving the U.S. of A. The rich, white politicians who forged this compromise and benefited most from that union didn’t give up much for it. The provision’s burden fell almost entirely on poor black slaves, and to a lesser extent on relatively poor free farmers in other districts and states who lost voting power.

In fact, most of the states had already agreed to a version of the three-fifths compromise proposed by James Madison during a debate over taxation under the Articles of Confederation. Only two states—New Hampshire and New York—objected, but that was enough to kill the provision under that constitution. James Wilson and Charles Pinckney proposed the same ratio at the Constitutional Convention. After debating the idea, applied to both representation and a “direct tax,” off and on for weeks, the convention adopted it in Article One, Section 2. The convention also declared that its document would be adopted even if four states voted no.

Wagner has other historical examples of compromises to point to. The Constitutional Convention also had to work out deals on a bicameral legislature with two forms of apportionment and the overlapping powers of the government’s three branches. (Of course, some might say those decisions led to periodic gridlock in Washington later.) Nineteenth-century politicians hailed legislative compromises like the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act—but they, like the three-fifths clause, had the effect of strengthening slavery.

If I had to choose one example of political compromise from early America that eventually brought wide benefits, it would be the agreement during the states’ ratification conventions to make immediate amendments to the Constitution. The result, today called the Bill of Rights, was mostly a statement of individual rights and protections. But that compromise arose out of a much wider public debate than the elite convention. And Americans didn’t fully enjoy those rights until the Fourteenth Amendment and twentieth-century judicial decisions requiring state and local governments to respect them.

In contrast, the three-fifths clause is now inoperative and repudiated by all. Indeed, it’s so far back in our past that most people don’t understand how it operated. The Constitution didn’t define blacks as three-fifths human, as some now interpret that clause. For purposes of calculating representation in Congress, the Constitution counted enslaved people in a district and multiplied by three-fifths before adding that number to the free people (white and black). But for all other purposes, the Constitution defined slaves as no-fifths of humans—they were property without rights.

Enslaved Americans might have been better off not being counted for representation. As it was, their numbers, multiplied by three-fifths, provided more influence for the rich white men in the parts of the country where they were enslaved. Those elite voters wielded disproportionate power in the U.S. Congress, the Electoral College, and state legislatures that followed the same system. Their representatives used that power to maintain their status and their human property for decades.

That’s the real lesson of the three-fifths compromise: decision-making by the elite alone tends to maintain the advantages of that elite at a cost to others. Real compromises require the participation of all the people involved and real sacrifices, even from the top.


cinnamonblue said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post. I hadn't heard of Wagner's essay, but I would agree he miss7453sd the mark by a long shot.

John L Smith Jr said...

I find your analysis of the bad part of compromise (3/5 of a person) vs. a good compromise (The Bill of Rights) so straight-forward and undeniably correct that I don't know how it could be deabted otherwise. You're right in also stating the obvious: the enslaved 3/5th weight it added to the enslavers made slaves even worse off ... if that would be possible. Thank you for your insight, J.L.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the kind comments. Wagner has now added some remarks to the top of his original essay, trying to allay the criticism of his choice of example.

I've seen a report from someone who watched the video of the gathering of politicians and political scientists Wagner referred to. He wrote that former Senator Sam Nunn actually cited the "Connecticut Compromise" at the Constitutional Convention, which set up two legislative houses, one elected by states and the other by equal districts. If Wagner had repeated that example accurately, he wouldn't have received so much criticism.

Anonymous said...

I would never have used the example Wagner used because you simply can't talk about this stuff and think other compromises would have better made his point without getting bogged down in a controversy which I'm surprised he did not forsee.

I certainly would have preferred a Constitution without any counting of slaves for representation purposes or, better yet, a United States without slavery but that was not on offer. Is it your view that (1) agreement could have been reached without allowing for some type of numeration of slaves or (2) failing that would you have not supported the Constitution and preferred two separate countries because this compromise was actually different than the others which involved interests that were not geographically contiguous.

Your concluding remarks would invalidate any of the compromises made in the course of the Constitutional Convention, not just the numeration of slaves.

I enjoy your blog, by the way.

J. L. Bell said...

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union created a single country with a national government. I'm not convinced that if the Constitutional Convention had failed to propose a plan to strengthen that government the Confederation would have split into two over slavery. There were too many other overlapping interests. Slavery wasn't as stark a divide as it later became. The Confederation could have split into smaller portions or, more likely, remained a weak shell over thirteen states. It gets too complex to predict what that would have meant for slavery in America.

Jimmy Dick said...

I think the US would have split apart if the Constitution was not ratified OR something else would have come about that might have been a lot stronger than the Constitution as Britain and France battled it out. Let's not forget the US did not dictate international policy. That argument was between Britain and France and it drove everything.

The major differences would have been in who traded with who such as New England with Britain and the South perhaps would have gravitated towards France. Hamilton's economic plans would not have been in place either. So that too could have been a wedge between sections that could have been exploited by Britain, France, and Spain.

In any event it is all a huge guess because it never came to pass, but the world might be very different had the Constitution not been ratified.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that the world would have been quite different without a U.S. of A. with a relatively strong national government committed to preserving slavery in the states that wanted it, as the Constitution did.

But in what way that would be different, and who would benefit, is harder to say. If, for instance, Great Britain reabsorbed parts of the American states, would that have ended slavery in those regions earlier? Or, with more of the British Empire dependent on slavery, would it have pushed back the end of slavery under British law?

Would the U.S. have spread west as powerfully as it did, buying French territory and conquering Spanish/Mexican territory? Or would those lands have developed very differently for the populations already there?

Jimmy Dick said...

You can see how examining the counterfactual of the American Revolution quickly becomes impossible. It also illustrates just how important the Revolution was to future events. Just imagine what could have happened had that shot not been fired on the green that fateful night.

J. L. Bell said...

But just because an event happened and had major consequences doesn't mean it was either inevitable or the best possible outcome. Wagner's initial argument (which he later undercut) suggested the 3/5ths compromise was a good thing because of what it allowed. And while our world is definitely a product of the Constitution, that doesn't mean the Constitution had to be created as it was.