Now I’m Only Going to Say This Once: The Three-Fifths Compromise


Ed Schultz closes his eyes to history.

While chiding Glenn Beck for his cherishing the U.S. Constitution, MSNBC talk show host Ed Schultz repeated one of the most oft-repeated lies about the Founding Fathers: they considered blacks less than fully human. In an episode of “Psycho Talk,” Schultz blasted Beck for saying “Progressives” believe individuals are the problem, and “in Samuel Adams’ day, they used to call [people who thought like this] tyrants. A little later, I think they were also called slave owners.”

Ed asked rhetorically, “Remember the three-fifths rule, where slaves counted as three-fifths of a person? It’s in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution that you so passionately defend,” he helpfully pointed out. “Maybe you should add that to your reading list.”

Ed joins a throng of notables on the well-worn path of misinterpreting the three-fifths clause (not “rule”; this isn’t the NFL, Ed). No less a constitutional scholar than Louis Farrakhan noted, “The South argued, saying, ‘Look, we gotta count these nigras.’ And the North said, ‘They don’t count. Them is nigras. They don’t count!’…So you were counted as three-fifths of a human.”

Farrakhan actually got the two regions’ positions correct: the North did not want to count slaves and the South did. Examining this logically, why would the North oppose slaves’ humanity while the South acted as their defender?

Because, like most threadbare myths of Progressives or racists, this is transparent nonsense.

The three-fifths compromise had nothing to do with whether blacks were full human beings: it had to do with how much power the Constitution would invest in those who enslaved them. The article Schultz cites resolved a dispute between Northern (or as they would have called themselves, “Eastern”) states and their Southern counterparts over how seats in Congress would be apportioned. It decreed taxes and representation would be determined according to each state’s “respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including…three fifths of all other Persons.” The Founders pointedly avoided using the term “slaves,” for fear that would legitimize the institution.

Some spoke out against the proposition. Pierce Butler and Gen. Charles Pickney, both of South Carolina, stood before the Constitutional Convention to demand the government count each slave on an equal basis with each white man. James Madison recorded in shorthand that Butler believed adamantly, “Representation Sd.. be according to the full number of inhabts. including all the blacks.” Was Butler an early egalitarian? Things become clearer when one learns Pierce Butler owned as many as 500 slaves and authored the Fugitive Slave Clause. Indeed, after the Revolution, Butler was so impoverished by British devastation of his plantation that he got a loan in Amsterdam, with which he purchased more slaves.

Southerners wanted all of the slaves counted, because that would increase the power slaveholders wielded in Congress. Slaves — who, naturally, could not vote — would nonetheless be given “representatives” chosen by white slavers, who would vote to perpetuate slavery and dilute the power of the industrializing North. Northerners wanted no slaves, or a smaller percentage of slaves, counted, to avoid opening the frontier to slavery. The Abolitionist movement had already taken hold in the North, and many of the Founders (contrary to Schultz) longed to abolish “the peculiar institution.”

Pierce and the Pickering cousins were vigorously opposed by Gouverneur Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate who gave an incendiary speech against the three-fifths compromise during the Constitutional Convention in 1787:

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.

In other words, the three-fifths compromise had nothing to do with anthropological merit and everything to do with crafting the best possible deal to dilute the slaveholders’ power in the newborn republic. It was as anti-slavery a compromise as the North could implement.

This is not new information. This basic history is in any reputable history textbook of the American founding (of which they are  too few). In fact, Glenn Beck explained it in thumbnail style the week before Ed Schultz’s segment. Yet shakedown artists, America-haters, and “progressives” generally cannot keep themselves from repeating the “three-fifths of a human being” mantra; it is simply too tantalizing an indictment of the American system, “institutional racism,” and the evils of whitey. The lie is even included in a book marketed to help Georgia’s high school students pass that state’s End of Course Test, showing their comprehension of U.S. history. (The text includes an erroneous quotation of “three-fifths of a person,” as though this were in the Constitution.)

This is one lesson the leftists fail.

This post originally appeared on October 26, 2009, on NewsRealblog.