Is Condoleezza Rice Right to Say the Founders Believed Blacks Were Only 3/5ths of a Person?


Mr. Zencey is author of a novel, Panama, and a collection of essays about how we think about nature, Virgin Forest. He currently teaches history and environmental studies for Empire State College in Europe and New York.

I’ve got a few pet peeves, and Condoleezza Rice has been giving voice to one of them.   As Glenn Kessler, a diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Postreports, in speeches overseas Rice regularly tells audiences “In the original U.S. Constitution, I was only three-fifths of a person."

This is a misreading of history.  The Constitution (which she’s been sworn, several times,  to uphold—an oath that implies a prior duty to understand) does not say that slaves are three-fifths of a person.  You can find that three-fifths fraction in the Constitution, true; but as with most truths, context is everything.  And African Americans would have been worse off if the number had been five fifths. A little history shows why.

Article I, section 2 of The U. S. Constitution clearly says:  

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States
which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

This is the section that describes how the House of Representatives is going to be set up.   The more residents a state has, the more representatives it will get in Congress.  Who counts as resident for purposes of apportioning Congressional seats?  This paragraph says: indentured servants, yes; native Americans “not taxed,” no; and slaves are a different matter entirely.

At the Constitutional Convention, representatives of the anti-slavery north, and some few enlightened representatives elsewhere, wanted slaves NOT to be counted for purposes of Congressional apportionment.  Many in the north, and some in the south, wanted slavery abolished.  Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner, knew that slavery was wrong and wanted it abolished; in his original draft of the Declaration, he had listed among King George's actionable offenses the King's encouragement of the slave trade.  This passage was excised by the review committee, for several reasons:  The language is flamboyant and unrestrained, and out of character with the clean, crisp, neutrally reportorial language in which the other elements of the indictment are brought.  And more to the point, a sizable portion of the southern aristocracy had no wish to charge King George with a crime for promoting a slave trade that they themselves wanted to see continue.  So they insisted it be cut.

Attendees at the Constitutional Convention knew that slavery was an immense and troubling issue, one that could prevent the formation of the Union--and one that would, eventually, tend to drive a nascent union apart.    

Excluding slaves from the apportionment census would have minimized the representation of slave-owning states, giving the free states of the North more power in Congress.  That position was roundly rejected by slave states, including Virginia--which was, along with New York, one of the two largest states.  It is fair to say that if either Virginia or New York had rejected the Constitution, there would have been no United States.  Everyone at the Convention knew that the approval of the voters of these two states would be crucial.  

And so a deal was struck, the famous three-fifths compromise.  The north wouldn't get what it wanted, which was no counting of slaves at all.  The south wouldn't get what it wanted, which was counting slaves one-for-one toward increased representation in Congress.  For purposes of Congressional apportionment, the population of slaves would be reduced by two-fifths. The abolitionist north fought the slave power on this issue, and the three-fifths compromise was the best they could get.  

Had this compromise not been achieved, the Union would likely never have come together. And if the "slavocracy" of the south had had its way--counting each slave as a whole person for purposes of apportionment--the slave states would have exercised more power in Congress, further resisting and retarding the movement toward abolition that came to a head with Lincoln's nomination a little more than a half-century later.  

Thus, when contemporary Americans bewail the compromise as having told blacks they are "three-fifths a man," they are wrong.  It was in the enslaved blacks' best interests not to be counted at all for this purpose.  Why an elected official of the United States, sworn to uphold the Constitution, persists in misrepresenting Constitutional history is a matter for future historians to ponder. 

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/12/2008

You apparently don't have the conscept of what the North and South issued about during the making of the Constitution. Since Condoleeza Rice 120 years ago wouldn't even have a chance to visit a court room to get her day in court, this point is mute. Since they didn't want to be crass about the language don't you think they would have changed slavery to persons to appease certain Quaker enabitions. The taxation of any person that is less then 100% is demeening and obviously slavery.

John Edward Philips - 1/8/2008

Jefferson condemned the international slave trade, not chattel slavery as such, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. While abolitionist sentiments were on the rise, they were still uncommon in the United States as a whole. The Atlantic slave trade, on the other hand, was unspeakably barbarous, and even many defenders of slavery were opposed to allowing it to continue. Only two states were in favor of continuing importation of slaves, but their feelings were so strong that they imposed on the Constitution a delay in the possibility of its abolition until 1808 at the earliest.

John Edward Philips - 1/8/2008

If you look in the Federalist Papers (54), the justification for the three fifths clause is that slaves were both property and persons. Property was not to be represented but persons were. That slaves were not allowed to vote was immaterial, as every state had its own qualifications for voting. Some allowed Catholics to vote, for instance, others didn't. Free blacks, whether they could vote or not, were counted fully, just as free whites were, whether they could vote or not. Since the Constitution considered taxation and representation by the same enumeration, slaves were counted for both purposes to the same degree, three fifths.

What is actually most significant here is that slaves in the United States Constitution were everywhere referred to as "persons" not "slaves", "colored people", "negroes" or any other term.

This meant that slaves were accorded, at least theoretically, all of the legal safeguards accorded other "persons" in the Constitution. Nat Turner may have been what we would now call a "terrorist" but he was accorded a lawyer. Since he could not afford a lawyer the state provided him with one. He had his day in court.

Would that the US government would give Gitmo detainees the same rights that slaves were once accorded in the United States!

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/7/2008

A good correction to a common misunderstanding. The point that a 5/5 count would have been worse is certainly true.

Yet, her common misunderstanding does have more than a kernel of truth.

Blacks, slave or free, were viewed by the vast majority of whites as lesser men and women. The willingness of northern delegates to accept the 3/5 number--however grudgingly--reflects that.

If northern whites had not simply viewed slavery as wrong but blacks as equals--as full men and women--then the entire debate over this clause and the constitution as a whole would have been very different.