by Del Tackett
230 years ago, this Sunday, marks the signing of the U.S. Constitution. It would later be ratified by the states as a “contract” or “covenant” under which the Federal Government was established. It was forged in the midst of the arguments from those who feared it would grant the Federal Government too much power and those who believed the current Articles of Confederation didn’t provide enough. It was therefore a document of compromise, primarily between these two perspectives. But, it was a document unequaled in the history of nation-states, establishing a Republic (“…if you can keep it” – Benjamin Franklin) in which the Federal Government was created by the States and kept in check by its strict boundaries believed to be essential by both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. For they both knew that the “king” would forever tend toward tyranny, amassing more and more power until the people were in its bondage.
It is not surprising, then, that 230 years later we sadly find ourselves with a Federal Beast who continually ignores many of those boundaries and therefore thumbs its nose at its covenant with the people and the states, reducing the latter to near meaningless redundancies in U.S. political governance.
Lacking people and Governors with vigilance and a backbone, the great fear of the Founders has sadly come to pass. I wish Constitution Day were deeply celebrated with placards and speeches—a day of instruction that we might “keep this Republic” and the liberty that has been the envy of freedom seeking people all over the world.
There was a compromise, however, in this Constitution, that wasn’t between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. It was a compromise between the slave states and the non-slave states.
In light of Constitution Day and the seething turmoil that continues to be fomented under the guise of racism, it seems appropriate for us to deal with the truth of this compromise.
I have run into this issue numerous times, especially in teaching college students. Recently, someone wrote in a comment to one of my posts, shaming the Founders because they established in the Constitution that “the African slave was only three-fifths of a human being”. He was referring to Article 1, Section 2, which does treat slaves as 3/5 of a person.
But does this mean that the Founders believed slaves were less than a human being, as the commenter implied, and as many of my university students have been taught in our academic day of “hate America…hate the Founders”?
If this were the case, and the argument was over whether or not a slave was a full human being or a non-human being, which way do you think the non-slave states and the slave states would have argued? If the current opinion were believed, then the slave states would have argued that their slaves were not really human beings at all and therefore justified to be considered as property. The non-slave states might have been arguing that the slaves were fully human.
However, this is NOT what the compromise was about and it is exactly the opposite of what gave rise to the 3/5 compromise.
The truth? The slave states were arguing for the FULL counting of the slave and the non-slave states were arguing for the slave to be counted as ZERO.
Surprised? What is going on here?
The argument was whether or not the slave states were going to be able to count their slaves in order to determine how many representatives they would be apportioned for Congress. The slave-states, of course, wanted slaves counted so as to give them a third more seats in Congress. The non-slave states were, contrary to hate-America teaching, trying to limit slavery and therefore they didn’t want the slave-states counting their slaves in order to increase their political power. This attempt to limit slavery was also found in the Northwest Ordinance, one of the four organic documents of the United States. This was the criteria by which a territory must abide if they wanted to become a new state in the Union. The Northwest Ordinance forbade slavery in any new state. This was one of the ways they intended to limit and confine slavery.
So, the compromise was NOT one that reflected a belief that a slave was less than fully human, it was an attempt to reduce the power of the slave states by allowing them to count their slaves. In order to gain the support of the slave states for the new Constitution, the 3/5 compromise was reached. But, again, it had nothing to do with the humanity of a slave; it had everything to do with trying to limit slave-state political power at the federal level.
There is something a little ironic in this whole situation. Under both the Articles of Confederation and the latter ratification of the U. S. Constitution, there had been a proposed amendment that used the population of the states as a basis for taxation. In this set of debates, you can probably guess which way the argument went. The slave states did NOT want to count the slaves and the non-slave states DID.
So, when it came to crafting this portion of the U.S. Constitution, the framers bound the issue of representation and taxation together. This brought an incentive for the slave states to compromise, for they, on one hand didn’t want to count the slaves for taxation, but on the other hand they wanted to count them for representation.
Hence the 3/5 compromise.
It had nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution declaring that the slave was only three-fifths of a human being.
Unfortunately, many people, especially in our universities, are treated to a false history in order to bolster the “hip hate America” that is trendy on campus. I urge people not to read modern U.S. history books for they are full of this bias. Instead, read the original documents as much as possible or at least go back and read the history books that are pre-1900.
There is a lot of shame in the history of the United States: slavery, treatment of the American Native, Japanese internment, etc… including the shame of things that are going on today, such as the killing of more babies every day than the number of lives lost on 9/11.
Don’t pile on with stuff that isn’t true.
And, celebrate Constitution Day by reading it and instructing your children in its amazing wisdom and limitations on federal power.