Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar says it was.
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz says it was not.
In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy. It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.
Read it here.
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.”
Ben Alpers nails it. In the wake of Emory University President James Wagner’s column presenting the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise as a good thing (and his subsequent apology), Alpers, writing at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, discusses the three-fifths clause as it relates to the way Americans understand the Constitution today. Here is a taste:
Of course, to elaborate in this way on why the three-fifths compromise was a Bad Thing leaves us with a difficult question: practically speaking, what was the alternative? The standard view, I think, is that while this compromise was a Bad Thing, since the Constitution was a Good Thing, it was, unfortunately, necessary. Here, for example, is Scott Lemieux, in comments on Erik Loomis’s LGM post about Wagner’s statement:
I don’t actually have a problem with defending the compromises made with slave states in the Constitution; it’s not like a slave-free national union was an option. But I wouldn’t cite this as an example of the values of compromise either . . .
I mean, clearly several states would not have accepted a constitution that banned slavery, and that included Virginia. So it was only an option if you think that the “United States” should have excluded any existing slave states, a result that would have created a much weaker country while not actually emancipating any slaves.
While we are willing to declare the three-fifths clause a Bad Thing, we are much less willing to entertain the possibility that the Constitution was not a Good Thing…in which case it’s hard to argue with Lemieux’s logic here.
The problem is that, in our public discourse, we maintain an essentially Whiggish view of the U.S.’s ongoing constitutional experiment. Yes, Mistakes Were Made. But, in the long run, we assume that things basically kept getting better. Major steps along the way–such as the framing of the Constitution–were necessarily Good Things, even if they had bad bits. So there’s something uncomfortable about simultaneously calling the three-fifths compromise a Bad Thing and the Constitution a Good Thing, once we acknowledge the latter’s dependency on the former. Of course, one never needs to make the argument that the Constitution was a Good Thing. That’s simply assumed.
And Alpers concludes with an important point about historical thinking:
There is, of course, much to be admired in the American Constitutional tradition. And there is also much to be criticized, especially in regards to the many compromises essentially caused by accommodating the institution of slavery. Truly thinking historically about any of this involves moving beyond Good Things and Bad Things, into a world of shades of grey. It also involves acknowledging contingency. The Constitution was far from inevitable, as Pauline Maier reminded us a couple years ago. Given the central role that the Founding plays in American civil religion, it may be too much to ask that our public culture start to think about these things more as historians do. But one can always dream.