Rethinking the Three-Fifths Clause

If you’ve spent much time reading or talking about the Constitution, you’ve probably come across the Three-Fifths Clause. It’s a little piece of Article I, Section 2, that says slaves are each counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of representation in the House. (Needless to say, this clause is no longer in effect.)

I remember hearing about this in high school. Like most people who hear about this, I thought it was unfair. All people should count as full, 100% human beings, not 3/5 of a human being. Right?

Well, it is a deeply unfair and horrible rule — but that’s not the reason why. In fact, slave owners of the day wanted their slaves to count as “full” people, while principled opponents of slavery wanted slaves counted as nothing.

Why?

Well, remember, we’re talking about a formula for calculating how many House Representatives a state gets. No matter what number we pick, or what formula we use, slaves are never going to be represented in the House (or Senate, for that matter). They can’t vote, they have no legal rights. The Representatives of a state represent slave owners, and other citizens (who are overwhelmingly pro-slavery).

So we’re really talking about how much power (in the form of Congressional control) slave owners are going to get.

With that in mind, the picture becomes clearer. Slave owners would count each slave as 30 people, if they could, and dominate the House. Meanwhile, not counting them at all means they only get “credit” for free citizens.

It’s just strange to have an idea in your head a certain way for over 20 years, then suddenly find out you’ve got it exactly backwards.

By the way, none of the reasoning above is a result of my own cleverness. It came from a book I’m reading, America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar.

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Weighing in at more than 600 pages, it’s the kind of book you can use to have a debate with someone, then cudgel them into submission if they won’t change their mind. It’s a really careful, insightful work, taking you through the Constitution itself and all 27 Amendments almost line by line, and explaining the history and the logic behind every single piece.

So far I’m only on Article II. I’ll keep you posted (unless I don’t).

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