Why Three-Fifths Was Better Than One, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

The implication of Millman's quoted comments is abhorrent - that the "purely practical" violence and brutality of slavery is secondary to the "hugely negative" ideological impact of the 3/5 compromise.  I wonder if he imagines slaves sitting in their lounge chairs reading the Constitution by firelight, their excited and expectant faces dropping with their self-esteem once they realize the document codifies them as but 60% of a person.  They'd probably be too depressed to work in the fields the next day!

Another elaborates:

Your reader is right, and Noah Millman is wrong. 

Counting slaves as three-fifths for census purposes was better than counting them as whole for precisely the reason the reader lays out: it diminished the power of slave holders by reducing the number House seats and Electoral Votes apportioned to states with large slave populations. Millman admits that the compromise was positive in "practical" terms, but insists that it was a negative ideologically.  At first, this makes sense.  He points out that (white) women and children did count as whole people for census purposes, even though they, like slaves, could not vote.  (He appears to forget about unpropertied white men and free blacks, who also could not vote, but were counted in the census, which I'll dismiss as a minor oversight on his part.)

Millman complains that the compromise "[e]stablished in America’s founding document that slaves were not analogous to women and children – that they were something less than full (nonvoting) members of the community."  It is true that slaves were not full members of the community - because they were slaves, whose status was determined by the states, not because of the way they were counted in the federal census.

I'm not buying the argument that counting them as full persons in the census while leaving them in bondage would have "[i]mplied that slaves were, indeed, analogous to women and children – fully human, but dependent on others because of their condition."  It would have done no such thing.  It would not have made them "full members of the community."  It would not have made them full, or even partial, citizens of the Republic.  It would, however, have further aggrandized their masters' political power. 

And, contrary to what Millman might think, there was no "official ideology of the slave power."  There was only an ever-shifing set of rationalizations.  Some claimed slave holders were benevolent caretakers.  Others claimed that the white race had God-given right to lord over other races.  John C. Calhoun justified slavery by defending its role in preserving the pastoral, semi-feudal life of Antebellum South, which he saw as superior to the industrial life of the North.  The truth is that there could not have been an "ideological" victory against slavery while still leaving it intact. 

So the better choice was aim for the "practical" victory of the three-fifths compromise, however repugnant it may seem.

Another adds:

Sure, counting slaves as three-fifths of a person (rather than one) in the Census diminished the political power of the South in the early days of the United States. But it also meant they had to pay fewer taxes! This is because, prior to the 16th Amendment (which allowed income taxes), all taxes had to be levied "in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken." (See Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4)

So there were two opposing forces: counting slaves fully meant the South would have more political power, but it also meant that they would also have to contribute more in taxes. The South resented the latter, and many thought that slaves shouldn't be counted for tax purposes (but of course they also thought that slaves should be counted for representation purposes!)

More supplemental history from Facts On File:

Delegates in Philadelphia did not conjure the three-fifths fraction out of thin air; rather, the three-fifths compromise had a history that predated the convention by a full four years. The federal number originated in 1783 with a proposed amendment, under the Confederation Congress, to transition the apportionment of taxes away from land values and to population. During that debate, Northern states campaigned hard to use population as the basis of taxation and to count slaves as people. The Northerners' position made sense for them because, at the time, a slight majority of all Americans (including slaves) lived in the South. By contrast, Southern states argued for the continuation of taxation based on land values. The problem with that proposal was that state governments assessed the values of their own land and notoriously undervalued their property in an attempt to escape the full brunt of taxation.