October 27, 2014

The Shameful Three-Fifths Clause: What it Really Meant

The following is a guest post from Ronald A. Reis, author of the new book, The US Congress for Kids: Over 200 Years of Lawmaking, Deal-Breaking, and Compromising 21 ActivitiesWelcome back, Ron!

It was known as the shameful three-fifths clause, and it was written right into the United States Constitution, where it would remain until passage of the 14th Amendment, on July 9, 1868. Slaves would be counted not as full human beings, but as only three-fifths of a person. Yet, the clause is known as “shameful,” not because of any moral worth of black persons, as is often assumed. Rather it was considered disgraceful because such persons were counted at all.


The number of House of Representative seats in Congress is allocated to each state on the basis of its population. Various formulas have been used over the years to determine how many seats each state gets. Naturally, a given state wants as many seats as possible. Since the number of seats is determined by how many people reside in a given state, counting everyone is every states goal. When the Constitution was written in 1787, the question of whether to count slaves or not took center stage.

The free states of the North did not want slaves to count at all. Since slaves had no legal rights and never would, they were irrelevant to the process of representation, it was argued. They should go uncounted.

The slave states of the South countered that slaves should count as full persons. They contributed materially to the national prosperity, it was said. Government was about protection of property as well as the personal rights of citizens.

As a compromise, it was decided that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person. Today, the three-fifths clause is often interpreted as an insult to black slaves, “they” being only “three-fifths of a person.” In truth, it was worse. The slave states wanted them to count as full persons to give their states more representatives. Slave interests, of course, would in no way be represented. On the contrary, giving slaves a full count would actually enhance the power of slave owners to defend the institution of slavery.

In sum, since counting people was all about enhancing representation in the House of Representatives, the slave states would have been happy to count slaves as full persons. The free states, knowing full well that doing so would only give more representation to the slave-holding South, all the better to uphold their “peculiar institution,” wanted slaves not to count at all.

For more on other book I have written, including Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids, please visit my website at www.ronreis.com.



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