know your black history: a terrible compromise – when black americans became “three-fifths of a person”

September 15, 2015

Southern and slaveholding interests dominated the founding of our country. Twelve of the first 16 presidents owned slaves. Eight of these presidents owned slaves while they were acting as president.  Fifty of the first 82 years of the United States were governed by slaveholding presidents. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the issue was not whether to abolish the evil abomination of slavery in the newly founded United States, the issue of contention was whether slaves should be counted as part of the population or should instead be considered property and not be counted toward allocating representative seats in Congress. Alexander Hamilton, future Secretary of the Treasury observed: “Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own…. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together…. Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?”

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor



If slaves were irrefutably “known” inhabitants of slave states their owners should be taxed accordingly. Hamilton felt their numbers should not be counted towards representation in Congress. For Hamilton, these Congressional seats would be the “adequate advantage” that should “go together” with imposing taxes on people who had some say in their representation. Slaves did not have any say in their representation in Hamilton’s opinion.

Future president Jefferson complained that “the southern states would be taxed according to their numbers and their wealth conjunctly, while the northern would be taxed on numbers only.” He referred to slaves simply as “wealth,” a clear indication that he thought of slaves as property. Jefferson objected to taxing Southerners based on counting the number of slaves. Slaves were a source of Jefferson’s own wealth, a “wealth” it outraged him to consider taxable.

As with any compromise, suggestions went back and forth depending on whether the representative was from a slave state or not.  Delegates opposed to slavery argued that only free inhabitants should be counted. Delegates from slave states argued that slaves should be counted in their actual numbers. Virginian Benjamin Harrison proposed that slaves be counted as half a person. New England representatives proposed slaves be considered three quarters of a person. James Madison, another future president, joined with representatives James Wilson and Roger Sherman to propose that each slave be considered three-fifths of a person.

The compromise was only reached when taxation in the same ratio was tied to the deal. In 1783 the “three-fifths compromise” was included in the Articles of Confederation:

“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 to 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.”

Hamilton had mentioned the “degradation” of slavery, but conventioneers did not address the “impropriety” of the institution itself.

It is an indelible disgrace that America defined slaves as “three fifths” of a person and included it in the Articles of Confederation. But the Constitutional Convention struggled over whether to count slaves at all. Slaves would be counted, but their interests would barely be mentioned, much less represented.

The compromise that was hammered out was not about legitimate political representation. It was about counting slaves to increase the number of Congressional seats held by white southerners. This terrible compromise was forged on the backs of slaves.



It would give Southern states disproportionate influence upon the presidency, upon the Speakership of the House and upon the Supreme Court for the next 82 years, which they used to reinforce slavery. In 1793 Southern slave states had 47 Representatives, but would have had only 33 if representation had been based on free populations. In 1812 the South had 76 instead of 59; in 1833 they had 98 instead of 73. In the 1830s states like Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina moved to disenfranchise free blacks voters thus giving more power to white Southern voters.

Southern slave states would take full advantage of their disproportionate influence in Congress. They forged the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise (1820), The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1855, and the authorization of the Mexican-American War and the Annexation of Texas. All of these measures reinforced slavery and enlarged slave territory.

In the 1840s and 1850s the Supreme Court heard numerous cases regarding slavery. Almost without exception the Court enforced slaveholding and slave states’ rights. Supreme Court’s decisions about slavery included:  Jones v Van Zandt (Northerners could be held liable for fugitive slaves they helped);  Strader v Graham  (gave slave states the right to ignore free states law about who was or was not a slave) and the infamous Dred Scott v Sanford case of 1856 (Americans of African descent were not citizens and had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the court had no power to regulate slavery in federal territory acquired after the creation of the United States.)

Finally, in 1865 the 13th Amendment nullified the “three-fifths clause” and abolished slavery. In 1868 the 14th Amendment made representation apportioned by counting whole numbers of persons.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the wholesale disenfranchisement of black Americans during Jim Crow in the South gave white Southerners even greater voting power than they had enjoyed in the antebellum era. Black disenfranchisement again gave Southern Democrats inflated representation and power and allowed them take advantage of the benefits of apportionment and tax benefits.  In 1900 Congress proposed stripping the South of seats in Congress based on the number of people barred from voting, but because of disproportionate Southern influence Congress was unable to get legislation passed.

It was not until the black migration to the North and West starting in the 1910s, mainly driven by economic factors that large numbers of black Americans began to be re-enfranchised and apportionments changed. It was the reclaiming of black political power that enabled the upwelling of support for civil right and voting rights that culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act this year, let’s remember the terrible compromises we had to overcome, and understand why it took Americans so long to get to “one man one vote.”


* Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. He has a contact blog www.findingoctave.com/contact.html for readers who may want to contact him.