Paul Finkelman on the Three-Fifths Clause

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.”

2 thoughts on “Paul Finkelman on the Three-Fifths Clause

  1. Oh, and not to mention that this American obsession with our slaveholding past in most case completely ignores that slavery had (and has) existed throughout human civilization for thousands of years, yet it is talked about as if it was unique to America and some uniquely American national sin.

    I'm not dismissing the horror of it all, just trying to point out that as evil as it was, slavery was not unique to America and was originally put in place by the British, as Jefferson noted in his draft of the Declaration of Independence when he listed the causes which compelled the separation.

    BTW, the PBS 3-part series “The Abolitionists” was excellent.


  2. Well, I see it the other away around….the 3/5ths clause limited southern power. Free blacks still counted as one person.

    The notion that I never see discussed as part of such diatribes is what would have happened if a compromise would NOT have been reached? Would GA, SC, MD, NC and/or possibly VA not ratified the constitution? Would they have formed their own “southern united states”….would perpetual conflict have resulted for years as each “country” battled to control territory?

    Would England, Spain or France, as a result, have “smelled blood” and either invaded the colonies or taken lands to the west of the colonies?

    So many folks condemn the 3/5ths compromise, but what was the alternative? Nobody was going to snap their fingers and all the slaveholders were going to, overnight, see the slaves as fellow human beings endowed with the same rights. Even Lincoln had stated views that blacks were inferior to whites and he could not see them co-existing on an equal level.

    It is my opinion that such a condemnation of the 3/5ths clause is “not thinking historically”.


Comments are closed.