The three-fifths compromise was right

Recently I’ve been reading The Return of George Washington, a history of George Washington’s life between the end of the Revolutionary War and his election as the first President of the United States. I’ll likely write a book review later, when I’m done reading it. Right now, I feel the need to comment on a particular issue that was briefly discussed in the book.

Before he became president of the USA, indeed, before the presidency was even a possibility, George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that established the framework of our Republican form of government. The convention was attended by delegates from 12 of the 13 states, Rhode Island being the only colony to not send delegates.

The southern state economies were dependent on slave labor, most of their delegates were slave holders (including George Washington), and a large percentage of the inhabitants of the southern states were slaves. Meanwhile, the northern state economies did not rely on slave labor, most of their delegates were against slavery, and relatively few slaves lived in the northern states.

The question of slavery inevitably surfaced during the convention, and was particularly relevant to the discussion of apportioning congressional representatives proportionate to the population of each state.

Southern delegates wanted slaves to be counted the same as non-slaves when determining the population of their states.

Northern delegates disagreed. They argued that the southern states treated the slaves as property, without rights and without a vote, and therefore slaves shouldn’t be considered when counting population.

If they couldn’t count slaves as part of their population, the southern states would have far fewer representatives in the new congress. This wasn’t acceptable to them, and would be a union-breaker as far as a new Constitution was concerned.

The northern delegates didn’t want the southern states to reject the Constitution, so a compromise was reached: Slaves would count as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of determining population.

Southern delegates wanted the slaves to count as a full person, but they agreed to the 3/5 compromise.

Northern delegates wanted the slaves to not count at all, but they agreed to the 3/5 compromise.

Make no mistake: The southern delegates in no way considered their black slaves to be equal to a full person, even though that’s how they wanted the slaves to be counted. And the northern delegates didn’t consider the black slaves to be a non-person, even though that’s how they wanted the slaves to be considered when counting population.

The reality was vice-versa. Morally, the northern delegates were on the higher ground, and the southern delegates were eye-deep in their slimy slavery-supporting cesspool.

So I am always very puzzled when I hear or read someone express anger that the Constitution counted slaves as 3/5 of a person rather than as a whole person.

Would they have preferred that the southern states — the slaveholders — be given even more power in Congress because of the number of slaves they held? Sounds like a pretty powerful incentive to perpetuate slavery and acquire even more slaves.

If I was part of the Constitutional Convention, after certain failure trying to talk the southern states into freeing their slaves, I would have argued that every slave should count as minus one person, completely nullifying the political population value of a non-slave for every slave held.

Of course, if I had persuaded the northern delegates to insist on minus one for each slave, the Convention would have failed, the government would have remained fragmented under the loose coalition created by the Articles of Confederation, and in all likelihood the iniquitous institution of slavery would have cursed this land much longer than it did.

So, as much as I don’t like the 3/5 compromise, it was probably the right way to go.

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