The delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 discussed several important topics and ultimately were saved by three compromises. The Connecticut Compromise, the Sectional Compromise, and the one that I will discuss in depth in this paper is the 3/5 Compromise. Each compromise was argued over by the delegates in length and many times it seemed as if the Constitutional Convention was going to fail. The 3/5 Compromise had many components and was viewed differently by northern and southern states. It all begins with how it was first proposed.
It was viewed as a measure of taxation, where representation was not at issue. In the Articles of Confederation it was stated that each state was only given one vote in Congress, with no proportionate representation. In this draft it was proposed that both indentured slaves, white or black should be counted. The southern states disliked this proposal because it boosted taxes, and they claimed it was taxation without representation. Southern states were heavily populated with slaves; therefore southern delegates had no desire to count slaves for taxes, but their tune would soon change when representation was brought on the table. Although the Northern states were heavily populated with free white men and therefore would get hefty taxes purely on their numbers.
Benjamin Harrison of Virginia then proposed a partial representation of slaves, counting them as one-half of an inhabitant. It didn’t take and was objected by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, saying that this was an advantage of owning slaves by cutting the taxes, and the number of men to supply for the common defense. It was then suggested by Witherspoon of New Jersey that taxation quotas would be set by “lands and houses”. The south supported this proposal and got behind it, but this would soon be unworkable since owners were underreporting their land to avoid taxation. The same problem approached, whether to count slaves and Harrisons proposal of one-half lead to calculations of slave productivity. Northern states argued that slaves only did three-quarters the work of free men, and Southerner’s argued that they did one-fourth or one-third. James Madison then suggested two-thirds and was shut down, he then counter acted with three-fifths rate for taxation. It basically gave a split in numbers between the Southern and Northern states percentage of labor, his proposal tilted in favor for the South. Madison’s proposal got acceptance from the South but not entirely enough, since it was becoming an Amendment the vote had to be unanimous. After looking at the Virginia Plan and this new proposal there was a movement to remove the term “free inhabitants”. With this new issue started more discussion and therefore lead to a new concern of the balance of representation between Northern and Southern states.
In the Articles of Confederation the North outnumbered the South, and under the Constitution taking shape that would no longer be the case. Northern states at sixty percent of white population and if they were to count slaves fully would have made the two regions equal. If the three-fifths Compromise was implemented it would give the South a higher number of delegates in the House. This became a central concern of representation and could have caused a major split in the country between the North and South. There was much debate about proportional representation in the House and the Senate that was given by Madison. He wanted to come up with a compromise for the compromise but felt that it would be divisive. After much deliberation on the three-fifths adaptations and wondering if the South would ever confederate on terms that would deprive them of their slave trade and the North settling on the South still using slavery and considering them property. The three-fifth rule was adopted but only because the South felt it deserved greater representation in the Government. This concession was proved to be the greatest and was to establish and secure the adoption of the Constitution.
The South wanted to achieve slave representation as a way of achieving majority control in the foreseeable future. With the Southern and Western states becoming more popular, being more inhabited, and becoming part of the Union the power would be in the hands of the minority. This was very apparent to the Northern states but they had little choice not to go into the three-fifths Compromise. The South wouldn’t have ratified if they didn’t have an edge on the decision. The North wanted the elimination of slavery completely, they thought of slavery as dishonorable to the American Character. The North knew the South wouldn’t give away such an interest so easy. The North gave the Southern states a proviso that the slave trade would be guaranteed but only for the next twenty years.
In the long run the South did not outnumber the North in representation, and in future elections carried the fear of the slave vote tipping the margin. Although the bargain has no obvious relevance today it still affects modern sensibilities since it implies that the framers did not consider slaves as full people, whether they were African American or Caucasian. Even though it was a flawed blemish in our constitution it wouldn’t have been easy back in 1788 to win voters ratification and free the slaves with such interest behind it.
Fiorina, Morris, Johnson, Bertram, Mayer, William, Peterson, Paul. America’s New Democracy. New York: Longman, 2006
Conlin, Joseph. The American Past: A Survey of American History. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009-2010