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The Three-Fifths Compromise in historical context.

David Steiner, in his Colorado Voices column today, makes a common statement that bears some thought.  (See “Take a tip from fourth-graders).

Steiner was a judge for an American Legion speech contest for high school students. The topic was the United States Constitution. “The high school students talked about  … how long it had taken for blacks to be counted as more than three-fifths of a person,” among other topics, he said.

It has been my experience that most refer to that provision of the Constitution as an example of the racism that existed at the time. I find that curious, since the existence of slavery is a much better example. The “Three-Fifths Compromise” is found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution. It reads:

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.

What does that mean in modern English? It means that when counting the population of a state for purposes of determining the size of that state’s Congressional delegation, slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person.

The problem was not this compromise, the problem was slavery. I find it disproportionate to cite this compromise as evidence of racism when it pales in comparison to the actual bondage of human beings. It is as if someone says, “yeah, there was slavery in Colonial America and people were owned like common chattel, but the real injustice was that they were only counted as 3/5 of a person when it came time to determine congressional representation!” In that light, it is absurd.

If asked, I bet most think it was the slave-owning southern states that did not want to count slaves as full people. After all, slaves were just property. But, no, that was not the case. It was the northern states that did not want to count slaves at all. Upon reflection, this makes sense. If slaves were counted in full, the south would have had a larger voice in Congress.

Therefore, the pro-slavery contingent wanted to count slaves as full people, but the anti-slavery contingent did not want to count them at all. This juxtaposition demonstrates the folly of citing the Three-Fifths Compromise as  an example of racism.

The compromise is historically important, but not as important as the institution of slavery itself.

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