WASHINGTON – It's a claim that has surfaced and been debunked before, but Republican lawmakers in recent days have given it new voice: the notion that the clause in the Constitution counting slaves as three-fifths of a person actually was a step toward ending slavery.
The most recent example came from Tennessee state Rep. Justin Lafferty as part of a debate over whether educators should be restricted in how they teach about systemic racism in American history. His remarks sparked applause from the GOP-controlled House while shocking many Black lawmakers and activists.
This is what Lafferty, who represents Knoxville, said: “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."
And last month, Colorado Republican Rep. Ron Hanks said the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise “was not impugning anybody’s humanity.”
The argument has been around for years. 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 interviewed by The Associated Press offer a different take. They see no evidence the constitutional provision was intended to end slavery. What makes them say that?
WHAT WAS THE THREE-FIFTHS COMPROMISE?
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 compromise was the product of negotiations at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Because the size of a state's delegation in the House of Representatives and a state's electoral votes depended on its population, Southern states pushed for counting slaves fully, historian Gordon Wood of Brown University wrote in an email. “The Northern states wanted the slaves not counted at all," Wood said.
But for taxation, the roles were reversed, says Kevin R.C. Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University. The compromise helped build support for ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Southerners might never have supported a document that gave no weight to slave populations. Northerners might have opposed ratification if slaves were fully counted for representation.
THAT SEEMS BACKWARD. WOULDN'T OPPONENTS OF SLAVERY HAVE WANTED SLAVES COUNTED FULLY, IN RECOGNTION OF THEIR HUMANITY?
Not in a fight over political power — particularly one in which states would be rewarded with larger congressional delegations and more electoral votes for having more people living in slavery.
“States should never get extra credit for extra slaves,” Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar says. Slaves had no political rights, but neither did other groups, including women. But women and children were represented by their husbands and fathers, Amar says, while “slaves are being bought and sold and named."
The debate over how to count slaves was acrimonious at times. Delegates sought a practical solution without which the Constitution might never have been adopted, Gutzman says: James Madison, who put forward the three-fifths formula, “thought the convention could break up if they didn’t resolve this problem."
WHAT WAS THE COMPROMISE'S EFFECT?
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,” Amar says, 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."
HOW DO THE THREE-FIFTHS COMPROMISE AND THE CURRENT DEBATE OVER TEACHING ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM INTERSECT?
The focus on the Three-Fifths Compromise and other key moments in American history comes as state Legislatures across the country debate how to talk about race and racism in schools and state agencies.
A handful of states have sought to ban “critical race theory,” which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law. Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma have implemented various versions of a ban already this year. Other attempts have been floated in New Hampshire, Missouri and Louisiana over the past few months, but such measures are unlikely to pass.
The remarks by Tennessee's Lafferty were made Tuesday after a last-minute attempt by Republicans to get the bill through the General Assembly before adjourning this week. But the bill currently faces resistance from the Senate.
A key concept the proposals seek to ban is teaching that individuals, by virtue of race or gender, are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously. Across the country, conservative lawmakers say they fear that white students are being taught that they should be ashamed for past wrongs carried out by earlier generations, such as slavery.
But opponents counter that such measures may be unenforceable and a violation of free speech.
Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee.