The History of the Three-Fifths Compromise

Undated illustration of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
Painting by Howard Chandler Christie of George Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

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The three-fifths compromise was an agreement reached by the state delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Under the compromise, every enslaved American would be counted as three-fifths of a person for taxation and representation purposes. This agreement gave the Southern states more electoral power than they would have had if the enslaved population had been ignored entirely.

Key Takeaways: The Three-Fifths Compromise

  • The three-fifths compromise was an agreement, made at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, that allowed Southern states to count a portion of its enslaved population for purposes of taxation and representation.
  • The compromise gave the South more power than it would have had if enslaved people had not been counted.
  • The agreement allowed slavery to spread and played a role in the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands.
  • The 13th and 14th Amendments effectively repealed the three-fifths compromise.

Origins of the Three-Fifths Compromise

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the founders of the United States were in the process of forming a union. Delegates agreed that the representation each state received in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College would be based on population, but the issue of slavery was a sticking point between the South and the North.

It benefitted Southern states to include enslaved people in their population counts, as that calculation would give them more seats in the House of Representatives and thus more political power. Delegates from Northern states, however, objected on the grounds that enslaved people could not vote, own property, or take advantage of the privileges that white men enjoyed. (None of the lawmakers called for the end of slavery, but some of the representatives did express their discomfort with it. George Mason of Virginia called for anti-slave trade laws, and Gouverneur Morris of New York called slavery “a nefarious institution.”)

Ultimately, the delegates who objected to slavery as an institution ignored their moral qualms in favor of unifying the states, thus leading to the creation of the three-fifths compromise.

The Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution

First introduced by James Wilson and Roger Sherman on June 11, 1787, the three-fifths compromise counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person. This agreement meant that the Southern states got more electoral votes than if the enslaved population hadn’t been counted at all, but fewer votes than if the enslaved population had been fully counted.

The text of the compromise, found in Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution, states:

“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.”

The compromise acknowledged that slavery was a reality, but did not meaningfully address the evils of the institution. In fact, the delegates passed not only the three-fifths compromise, but also a constitutional clause that allowed slaveholders to “reclaim” enslaved people who escaped. By characterizing them as fugitives, this clause criminalized the enslaved individuals who ran away in quest of their freedom.

How the Compromise Affected Politics in the 19th Century

The three-fifths compromise had a major impact on U.S. politics for decades to come. It allowed slave states to have a disproportionate influence on the presidency, the Supreme Court, and other positions of power. It also resulted in the country having a roughly equal number of free and slave states. Some historians contend that major events in U.S. history would have had opposite outcomes were it not for the three-fifths compromise, including:

Altogether, the three-fifths compromise had a detrimental impact on vulnerable populations, such as the enslaved and the nation’s indigenous peoples. Slavery may have been kept in check rather than allowed to spread without it, and fewer Native Americans may have had their way of life upended, to tragic results, by removal policies. The three-fifths compromise allowed the states to unite, but the price was harmful government policies that continued to reverberate for generations.

Repeal of the Three-Fifths Compromise

The 13th Amendment of 1865 effectively gutted the three-fifths compromise by outlawing slavery. But when the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, it officially repealed the three-fifths compromise. Section 2 of the amendment states that seats in the House of Representatives were to be determined based on “the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed."

The repeal of the compromise gave the South more representation since the members of the formerly enslaved African-American population were now counted fully. Yet, this population continued to be denied the full benefits of citizenship. The South enacted laws such as “grandfather clauses” meant to disenfranchise African Americans, even as the black population gave them more influence in Congress. The additional voting power not only gave Southern states more seats in the House but more electoral votes, too.

Congress members from other regions sought to reduce the South's voting power because African Americans were being stripped of their voting rights there, but a 1900 proposal to do so never materialized. Ironically, this is because the South had too much representation in Congress to allow for a switch. Until as recently as the 1960s, Southern Democrats, known as Dixiecrats, continued to wield a disproportionate amount of power in Congress. This power was based in part on the African-American residents, who were counted for the purposes of representation but who were prevented from voting through grandfather clauses and other laws that threatened their livelihoods and even their lives. The Dixiecrats used the power they had in Congress to block attempts to make the South a more equitable place.

Eventually, however, federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would thwart their efforts. During the civil rights movement, African Americans demanded the right to vote and ultimately became an influential voting bloc. They have helped a slew of black political candidates get elected in the South and nationally, including the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, demonstrating the significance of their full representation.

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