Not often, but often enough when discussing slavery or America’s treatment of blacks and black slaves, someone will introduce the notion that they once were only considered three-fifths of a person, or similarly three-fifths human. I’ll be honest, when I first heard this, it sounded like something that might be the case, like the fact that 68% of statistics are made up on the spot. But is it true?
Not exactly. Article 1 of the Constitution, in pertinent part reads as follows:
3. 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 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.
Two things immediately come to mind. First, the number of House Representatives is directly related to population and by extension holds weight for the Electoral College. By only considering three-fifths of all non-free persons (slaves), the pro-slavery South was prevented from politically overpowering the generally anti-slavery North. In other words, had the whole number of slaves been counted, the South’s population would have allotted for a significant number more Representatives in the House and more Electoral votes. The abolition of slavery, which eventually would have been abolished anyway, would have taken significantly longer to accomplish.
Secondly, and more importantly, nothing in the Constitution declares that blacks — or slaves — were three-fifths human/person. It clearly states that only three-fifths of the non-free will count toward the allotment of House representatives. Notice that the focus is on whether a person is free or other than free. Both are referred to as persons with no distinction of lesser or greater.
The three-fifths compromise as it’s called, isn’t a contrived white-washing of history. It was an intentional political maneuver to expedite the abolition of slavery. Is this misconception intentional to gain an emotional upper-hand in a race-related debate? Or is this simply a misunderstanding which has morphed into ‘everybody knows…’?