There are few things that are less understood than the 3/5th of a human that our Founders put into our Constitution. There are few things that have been so misrepresented to Americans throughout history. Why did they do this? Was it purely a racist issue? Did they believe that you couldn't count slaves as full human beings because of their race? Of course some did, but is that why it was in the Constitution? No.
The arguments over how to count representatives to the Congressional House Districts seemed to be at the top of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention agenda that hot summer of 1787. The disagreements often only masked an even more important but unspoken, difference over slavery between members from the Northern and the Southern sections. Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas had enough population, at the time, to block antislavery legislation under the new proposed House of Representatives structure, but already ominous trends seemed to put the South on a path of permanent minority status. First the precedents being set that summer in the Northwest Ordinance suggested that slavery would never cross the Ohio River. More important, the competition posed by slave labor to free labor, combined with the large plantations guaranteed by the custom of the eldest son inheriting the land pushing the younger sons out to find their own way, made a surety that immigration to Southern states would consistently fall behind that of the North. Fewer immigrants meant fewer Congressional Representatives, so the House was in jeopardy in the foreseeable future. To ensure a continued strong presence in the House, Southern delegates proposed to count slaves for the purpose of representation -a suggestion that outraged antislavery New Englanders, who wanted only to count slaves toward national taxes levied on the states by the new government. Indians would not count toward representation or taxation.
On June 11, 1787, Pennsylvanian James Wilson who personally opposed slavery, introduced a compromise in which, for purposes of establishing apportionment and for taxation, a slave would be counted as three fifths of a free inhabitant. The taxation aspect was never invoked; the new Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, had a different plan in place, so it became a moot point of the compromise, essentially giving the South an inflated count in the House at no cost. Wilson's phrase referred to "free inhabitants" and all other person's not comprehended in the foregoing description, and therefore "slavery" does not appear in this founding document.
The disturbing designation of a human as only three-fifths of the value of another aside, the South gained a substantial advantage through the agreement. Based on the percentage of voting power by the five major slave states, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, and the two Carolinas, the differential appeared as follows: 1. under the one state on vote proposal, 38%. 2. Counting all inhabitants, except Indians, 50%.
3. Counting only free inhabitants, 41%. 4. Using the eventual 3/5th compromise numbers 47%.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention thus arrived at the point they all knew would come. Americans had twice before skirted with the issue of slavery or avoided dealing with it. In 1619, when black slaves were first unloaded off ships, colonialists had the opportunity and responsibly to insist on their emancipation, immediately and unconditionally, yet they did not. Then again, in 1776, when Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and included the indictment of Great Britain's imposition of slavery on the colonies, pressure from South Carolina and other Southern States forced him to strike it from the final version. Now, in 1787, the young Republic had a third opportunity, perhaps the last without bloodshed, to deal with slavery. Yet, its delegates did not.
Several examples can be cited to suggest that many of the delegates thought that slavery was already headed for extinction. In 1776 the Continental Congress had reiterated a prohibition in the non importation agreement against the importation of African slaves, despite repealing the rest. During the war, various proposals were submitted to the Congress to offer freedom after the conflict to slaves who fought for the Revolution. Southern colonies blocked these. After the war, several Northern states, including New Hampshire (1779), Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1783), Rhode Island (1784), all expressly forbade slavery in their Constitutions, adopted immediate or gradual emancipation plans, or had courts declare slavery unconstitutional. Most encouraging to anti-slave forces, however, in 1782 Virginia passed a law allowing slave owners discretion on freeing their slaves.
Jefferson's own "Notes on the State of Virginia" imagined a time after 1800 when all slaves would be free, and Madison labeled proslavery arguments in 1790 "shamefully indecent," calling slavery a "deep-rooted abuse." Founders such as Hamilton, who helped start the New York Manumission society, and had established their antislavery credentials. Perhaps the most radical, and surprising, was Washington, who, alone among the southern Founders, projected an America that included both Indians and freed slaves as citizens in a condition of relative equality. He even established funds to support the children of his wife's slaves after her death and , in his last will and testament, freed his own slaves.
Slavery was also an economic drain on the South, the main crop of tobacco was stripping the land of it's fertility. Slavery would have died out for purely economic reasons if not for the invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney later on creating a huge economic boom in the South and global demand for their cotton, energizing slavery and putting us on a collision course for the Civil War.
The compromise over slavery did not come without a fight. Gouverneur Morris, one of the most outspoken critics of slavery at the convention, attacked Wilson's fractional formula and asked of the slaves counted under the three-fifths rule, "Are they admitted as Citizens? Then why are they not admitted on an equality with White Citizens? Are they admitted property? Then why is not other property admitted to the computation?" Massachusetts' Elbridge Gerry echoed this line of thinking, sarcastically asking why New Englanders would not be allowed to count their cattle if Georgians could count their slaves.
Morris and others, including Jefferson, recognized that slavery promised to inject itself into every aspect of American life. Consider "comity," the principle that one state accepts the privileges and immunities of other states to encourage free travel and commerce between them. Article IV required states to give "full faith and credit" to laws and judicial decision of other states. Fugitives from justice were to returned for trail to the state of the crime, for example. Almost immediately, conflicts arose when slaves escaped to northern states, which then refused to oblige southern requests for their return. Northern free blacks working in the merchant marine found themselves unable to disembark from their ships in southern ports for fear of enslavement, regardless of their legal status. Seven Southern coastal states actually imprisoned free black sailors upon their arrival in port. At the time, however, the likelihood that the southerners would cause the convention to collapse meant that the delegates had to adopt the three-fifths provision and deal with the consequences later. Realistically, it was the best they could do, although it would take seventy-eight years, a civil war, and three constitutional amendments to reverse the three-fifths compromise.
Modern historians have leaped to criticize the convention's decision, and one could certainly apply the colloquial definition of a compromise as; doing less than what you know is right. Historian Joseph Ellis noted that "the distinguishing feature of the Constitution when it came to slavery was its evasiveness." But let's be blunt: to have pressed the slavery issue in 1776 would have killed the Revolution, and to have pressed it in 1787 would have aborted the nation. When the ink dried on the final drafts, the participants had managed to agree on most of the important issues, and where they disagreed, they had kept those divisions from distracting them from the task at hand. More important, the final document indeed represented all: "In 560 roll-calls, no state was always on the losing side, and each at times was part of the winning coalition." The framers were highly focused only on Republic building, acting on the assumption that the Union was the highest good, and that ultimately all problems, including slavery, would be resolved if they could only keep the country together long enough.
From the onset, the proceedings had perched perilously on the verge of collapse, making the final document truly a miracle. When the convention ended, a woman buttonholed Benjamin Franklin and asked him what kind of government the nation had. "A Republic, madam, If you can keep it." Franklin replied.