*Although the claim has been debunked a multitude of times, Republican lawmakers in recent days have given new voice to the notion that the clause in the Constitution counting slaves as three-fifths of a human was actually a step toward ending slavery.
The most recent example came from Tennessee state Rep. Justin Lafferty as part of a debate over whether schools should be restricted in how they teach about systemic racism in American history. His remarks even sparked applause from the GOP-controlled House while shocking many Black lawmakers and activists.
Lafferty, who represents Knoxville, said on the floor: “By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives who would be available in the slave-holding states and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery. Well before Abraham Lincoln. Well before Civil War.”
This misinformation about the 3/5 clause has been spewed by conservatives for years. Last month, Colorado Republican Rep. Ron Hanks said the Compromise “was not impugning anybody’s humanity.” In 2019, Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum claimed that “the three-fifths vote was actually to eliminate the overwhelming influence the slave states would have in representative government.” Conservative commentator Glenn Beck made a similar argument in 2010.
Scholars, however, see no evidence that the constitutional provision was intended to end slavery. It was part of a provision of the original Constitution that dealt with how to allot seats in the House of Representatives and dole out taxes based on population. State populations would be determined by “the whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons.” The provision allowed Southerners to include slaves in the census count, and amass more political power.
The size of a state’s delegation in the House of Representatives and a state’s electoral votes depended on its population, so Southern states pushed for counting slaves fully, historian Gordon Wood of Brown University told the Associated Press. “The Northern states wanted the slaves not counted at all,” Wood said. So the compromise of slaves being counted as “three fifths” of a person was reached to satisfy both sides, and not as a way to limit the number of representatives in the slave-holding states for the purpose of ending slavery, as Rep. Lafferty wrongly stated.
Historians widely consider that counting slaves at all for representation significantly enhanced Southern political power. Perhaps the most striking example was the presidential election of 1800.
“Without the Three-Fifths Compromise, John Adams wins the election of 1800 against Thomas Jefferson,” says Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar, because of the extra electoral votes Southern states held based on their slave populations. Eight of the first nine presidential elections were won by slave-owning Virginians, says Amar, who deals with the topic in his new book, “The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840.”
After the 1800 election, when the nation adopted a constitutional amendment to fix problems with the Electoral College, New Englanders who proposed getting rid of the three-fifths language were ignored, according to Amar. Only with the adoption of post-Civil War amendments that abolished slavery and extended political rights to Black Americans did the Three-Fifths Compromise end.
The taxation that would have been a financial blow to slaveowners never happened. Says Gutzman: “There never was a direct tax under the U.S. Constitution that needed to be apportioned by population.”
The House approved the legislation on Tuesday and the Senate passed the amendment on Wednesday after initially refusing the bill. Gov. Bill Lee now needs to sign the bill to put it into law.