Three-Fifths Clause: Why Its Taint Persists

A college president's blunder reminds us how a compromise over slavery still affects U.S. politics.


But in the House of Representatives, the framers provided for representation based on population. The great quandary was how to determine a state’s population for allocating representation in Congress. If only free people were counted, then the Northern states would have dominated the Congress. In 1790, Virginia, for example, had a total population of more than 690,000 people, but 288,000 of them were slaves. Thus, the state’s free population was only about 404,000.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania had a total population of 434,000, and all but 4,000 of these people were free. Pennsylvania was in the process of ending slavery, and by 1790 a majority of that state’s black population was free, and those free blacks could vote on the same basis as free whites. Thus, if representation in Congress were based only on the free population, then Pennsylvania would be able to outvote Virginia. If slaves were counted in allocating representation, then Virginia would be the most powerful state in the nation, with the largest congressional delegation.

Southerners at the convention insisted that their slaves be counted when allocating representation in Congress, even though everyone understood that slaves were considered property and had no political rights. Throughout the convention, the slave owners also made it clear that they did not expect an end to slavery in their states. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, citing ancient Rome and Greece, declared that slavery was “justified by the example of all the world.” His cousin, Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, told the convention that “South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves.

The Southerners were adamant: Slaves were property, Southerners would continue to import more slaves from Africa, and at the same time, those slaves should be added to the number of free people when representation in Congress was being allocated.

James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who eventually supported the clause, understood the inconsistencies of the Southern demands. He “did not well see on what principle the admission of blacks in the proportion of three fifths could be explained.” He asked, if slaves were citizens, “why are they not admitted on an equality with White Citizens?” But if slaves were “admitted as property,” it was reasonable to ask, “Then why is not other property admitted into the computation?”

Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, used the same logic to oppose the clause. Gerry argued that slaves “are property, and are used to the southward as horses and cattle [are] to the northward.” He sarcastically wondered “why should their representation be increased to the southward on account of the number of slaves,” when the convention was not willing to allocate representation in the Northern states on the basis of their “horses or oxen”? Gerry argued that if slaves were counted for representation, this clause would degrade freemen in the North by equating them with slaves. He wondered, “Are we to enter into a Compact with Slaves?” At the end of the convention, Gerry would refuse to sign the Constitution because he was so outraged by the three-fifths clause.

A Foothold for Slavery

Thus, the debate over representation was about political power — but it was also about morality. Many Northerners objected to the idea of counting slaves for representation in a nation that was designed to provide liberty for its citizens. Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker who represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, noted that if slaves were counted for representation, “the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.”

Morris and a few other vocal opponents of slavery were on the losing end of this debate. All the Southerners insisted that the allocation of representation in Congress had to take slaves into consideration. Most Northern delegates acquiesced on this point because they were afraid that otherwise, the Southern states would not support the new Constitution.

The solution was the three-fifths clause.