The 3/5ths rule in the U.S. Constitution

In today’s excerpt – in the U.S. Constitution, Indians who renounced their tribe were counted toward a given state’s population for the purpose of determining how many members of the House of Representatives each state had. “Other persons,” the Constitution’s euphemism for “slaves,” counted as 3/5 of a person for this same purpose. The debate over this horrible compromise unleashed a level of vitriol among the framers that barely subsided before it erupted again scarcely more than thirty years later and then finally erupted in the American Civil War:

United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2: 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.

“Census enumerators began to include Indians who had renounced their tribes in 1860. The instructions provided for the 1880 census said ‘Indians not taxed’ meant ‘Indians living on reservations under the care of Government agents, or roaming individually, or in bands, over unsettled tracts of country.’ In 1940 the government did away with the category ‘Indians not taxed.’

“[The ‘other persons’ clause] is one of the most infamous clauses in the Constitution, because not only did it countenance slavery but it was seen as doubly demeaning to the men and women held in bondage that they
were each counted as but three-fifths of a person. The political dynamic behind this clause, however, is full of ironies. It was the North that opposed counting a slave as a whole person. It was the South that wanted slaves to be so counted. The three-fifths compromise meant that the ill-gotten gains of slavery were no longer solely financial but that slaveholders were to receive political gains as well – the more slaves a state had, the more representatives it would have in the Congress. …

“Under the Articles [of Confederation that preceded the Constitution], in which each state had the same representation, there was no incentive to show a large population, and states faced the threat of a population-based tax. So they had an incentive to understate their true population. The Constitution changed the equation. Suddenly representation in Congress was no longer equal for each state but was based on population. So states now had reason to bolster their population. The issue was an existential one for the country. William Davie of North Carolina is recorded in The Records of the Federal Convention as saying that he ‘saw that it was meant by some gentlemen to
deprive the Southern States of any share of Representation for their blacks. He was sure that N. Carola. would never confederate on any terms that did not rate them at least as 3/5. If the Eastern States meant therefore to exclude them altogether the business was at an end.’

“Of the three-fifths clause, Gouverneur Morris, the Pennsylvania
delegate, said this to the Convention: ‘The admission of slaves into the
Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant
of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance
of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures
from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel
bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of
the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa or N. Jersey who views
with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.’ The three-fifths clause,
Luther Martin declared in The Genuine Information, involved ‘the
absurdity of increasing the power of a State in making laws for free
men in proportion as that State violated the rights of freedom.’ ”

Seth Lipsky, The Citizen’s Constitution, Basic Books, Copyright 2009 by Seth Lipsky, pp. 7-8.

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Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 12:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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