E.W. Jackson's Correct about the Three-Fifths Clause

May 23, 2013 - 11:35 AM

Talking Points Memo and former Huffington Post writer, Sahil Kapur calls E.W. Jackson's representation of the three-fifths clause, "a deeply misleading telling of American constitutional history."  But, in fact, Kapur's memo, though it appears reprinted in the Huffington Post, Think Progress, and the Daily Kos, is not only misleading, but extremely under-sourced.

Digging up a 2011 statement by Jackson, Kapur notes that the Republican candidate for lieutenant Governor in Virginia said, "Rev. [Charles Wallace] Smith must not have understood the 3/5ths clause was an anti-slavery amendment. Its purpose was to limit the voting power of slave holding states."

Kapur then goes on to opine that, "The clause was demanded by Southern proponents of slavery as a way of enhancing their congressional representation. They wanted slaves to be counted as full persons but settled on three-fifths. People of African descent would have had no real rights either way. The inclusion of the clause greatly enhanced the South's political power and made it harder to abolish slavery."

But the South's influence did not grow after the three-fifths clause, the representation by slave holding states actually declined.  Also, as Davis points out, the acceptance by the slave states of the three-fifths rule would hang a political target on those states considering the run up to and theme of the Civil War

During the arguments, and this can be found in Yate's manuscript of the proceedings, a man named Luther Martin, delegate to Maryland took to the floor of the convention and said:

"With respect to that part of the second section of the first article, which relates to the apportionment of representation and direct taxation, there were considerable objections made to it, besides the great objection of the inequality-It was urged, that no principle could justify taking slaves into computation in apportioning the number of representatives a states should have in government-That it involved the absurdity of increasing the power of a state in making laws for free men in proportion as that state violated the rights of freedom-That it might be proper to take slaves into consideration, when taxes were to be apportioned, because it had a tendency to discourage slavery; but to take them into account in giving representation tended to encourage the slave trade, and to make it the interest of the states to continue that infamous traffic-That slaves could not be taken into account as men, or citizens, because they were not admitted to the rights of citizens, in the states which adopted or continued slavery-If they were to be taken into account as property, it was asked, what peculiar circumstance should render this property (of all others the most odious in its nature) entitled to the high privilege of conferring consequence and power in the government to its possessors, rather than any other property: and why slaves should, as property, be taken into account rather than horses, cattle, mules or any other species; and it was observed by and honorable member from Massachusetts, that he considered it as dishonorable and humiliating to enter into compact with the slaves of the southern states, as it would with the horses and mules of the eastern."

This summary of the principle arguments of the issue is one that encapsulates the entire controversy. It reaches from how a government could be enacted for a free people, yet considers some not people nor free, to how the apportionment of representation could encourage an unlimited importation of that morally repugnant trade.

After reading what actually was debated, it is an incongruent position to opine that the delegates didn't take on the issue and try to get a compromise that would weaken and eventually destroy the practice of slavery.

The compromise is argued about and will continue to be argued about, but at least, it would be helpful if the four publications from above would have searched for source material rather than rely on the incorrect assumptions by Kapur.

Even in his search to find a professor who would, ostensibly, agree with his assertions, Kapur falls short with Beeman.  He links to Beeman's interview from 2011, and includes only one short sentence, "Some of the compromises we can look back and be proud of; some of those compromises we can't be very proud of. The three-fifths compromise, by which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, is not something any of us would applaud them for today."

However, Beeman's quote doesn't stop there, he continued, "But they really did go through that whole summer knowing that if they were going to get something done, they had to find ways to reach agreement."

Beeman also tells of his appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily show as "an out-of-body experience," and that, " I don't know whether I've seen the last of Jon Stewart, but I suspect that perhaps I have not. As long as the Tea Party keeps misbehaving, he's likely to ask me back."

One could infer that Beeman doesn't much like the Tea Party.

One professor and a Digital History link do nothing to prove Kapur's indictment of Jackson's statement as misleading.

In truth, in order to have the proper number of representatives in the proposed federal government, some suggested that slaves be counted for representation. That would mean that Georgia, presumably having the biggest number of slaves and being such a large state, could have undue influence in the legislature and slavery would not only continue but thrive because the number of representatives would increase as long as importation of slaves increased.

Many rightfully rejected the idea that black men were property. They couldn't abide counting them as property, even though it would lessen the amount of influence slave states had on the federal government, something they worked to do. How could they make the states free and independent while men in some states were not free?

The controversy of the three-fifths rule has historians politically divided, but Jackson's position is one of truth.  There was neither an ability, nor a movement, to abolish slavery at the time of the convention.  It was widely believed that slavery was on its way out, and the three-fifths rule did help that along, as did other agreements at the time.  But, in order to get the Constitution signed then ratified, the clause was agreed upon.

The abolition of slavery came as a movement, which turned into a civil war, and the argument that it could have been easier abated by actions at the constitutional convention should not be left to a shallow search of history and a politically aligned professor.

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