Why Three-Fifths Was Worse Than One, Or None

Apropos of this item from Andrew Sullivan’s blog: I’ve heard this rejoinder from other people, that the 3/5 compromise was “better” than if the Constitution had counted slaves fully, and thereby given greater representation to the slave states, and that therefore people who point to it as especially egregious evidence that our founding document was tainted by white supremacy have it backwards. But this rejoinder is really a non-sequitur.

Slaves were not the only persons in the United States at the time who did not have the right to vote. Women and children, most obviously, could not vote, but were nonetheless counted for purposes of representation. And that makes sense; if you argued, today, that children should not be counted for purposes of apportionment because they can’t vote, the argument would seem absurd. Indeed, to the extent that there is debate these days about apportionment and the census, the argument is that non-citizens, or at least illegal immigrants, should not be counted for apportionment purposes, because although they plainly do have interests, the national interest in having them leave the country is so strong that their interests should not be virtually represented (as those of children are) through giving greater voting strength to the citizens in their area. (I don’t have much sympathy for that argument, but that’s the argument.)

Had slaves been granted zero weight for apportionment purposes, that would have weakened the South practically and would plainly have said that slaves are not in a condition analogous to women and children – full human beings who are nonetheless dependent on other human beings for, among other things, representation. That would, obviously, have been optimal from an anti-slavery perspective.

Had slaves been granted full weight for apportionment purposes, that would have strengthened the South practically, which would have been very negative from an anti-slavery perspective. But it would also have implied that slaves were, indeed, analogous to women and children – fully human, but dependent on others because of their condition. This was the official ideology of the slave power, but essential features of the slave system – most notably the fact that slaves were not merely owned but traded, which made normal family life among slaves a legal impossibility – were always incompatible with any true recognition that slaves were fully human. Any such formal recognition, then, would be an ideological victory against slavery.

The three-fifths compromise was, from a purely practical perspective, a positive inasmuch as it weakened the South relative to the North. But it was hugely negative from an ideological perspective because it established 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. Cattle, free children and slaves all could not vote. Cattle had no representation, free children had full representation, and slaves had partial representation. That’s a pretty perfect expression of the ideology of white supremacy that was a necessary component of the slave system as practiced in the United States. Which is precisely what it is understood to be today, and precisely why it is considered so offensive in retrospect.