In light of Emory University President James Wagner’s recent comments on the three-fifths clause of the Constitution (see our coverage here), Constitutional scholar Paul Finkelman explains why slavery still affects U.S. politics.
He reminds us that the so-called three-fifths compromise was a “huge victory for slavery and gave nothing to those who favored freedom.” He also reminds us that despite popular opinion, the compromise did not “declare that African Americans were three-fifths of a person.” Rather, “the provision declared that the slave states would get extra representation in Congress for their slaves….” Here is a taste of his piece at The Root:
…the three-fifths clause had a significant impact on presidential elections. At the Constitutional Convention, Madison said that a direct election of the president “by the people” would be the best system, but he rejected it because slaves could not vote, and thus the Southern states would be at a disadvantage. Instead, Madison came up with the Electoral College, which allocated presidential electors based on the number of members of Congress that each state had. This gave the South a bonus in the Electoral College.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson, who owned close to 200 slaves at the time, would not have been elected president without the presidential electors created by counting slaves for representation. Even though slavery is long gone, the Electoral College, which allows someone to become president while losing the popular vote, continues to haunt our political system. It is a perverse legacy of slavery and the three-fifths clause in our Constitution.
And Finkelman concludes:
It is no wonder that the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison considered the Constitution “a covenant with death, and an agreement in Hell.”