Friday, December 17, 2010

The 3/5ths Clause: The Power of Irrationality

I have long believed that the most powerful antislavery clause in the Constitution is the three/fifths clause, which designates slaves as constituting three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation.  Why?  Because of its indefensibility and irrationality.  If the Northerners had won, and slaves were not counted for purposes of representation, the South probably would not have signed the document.  If the Southerners had won, and slaves were counted as 5/5, it would have been distasteful to the Northerners, but they would have swallowed it, and the controversy would be over (and Southern power substantially increased).  But by ordaining this cockamamie "Federal Ratio," every time a slave state came up for admission to the Union, the issue of slave representation blew up again and ripped off the scab.  It kept the fact of the political injustice of slavery alive, even at times when the moral injustice was being ignored.

Surely the framers could not have intended  this effect, right?  Well, it's possible.  As Jan Lewis observes
in her essay "The Three-Fifths Clause and the Origins of Sectionalism (in Finkelman and Kennon, Congress and the Emergence of Sectionalism), it was James Wilson of Pennsylvania who proposed the Federal Ratio.  And he was one of the most forceful opponents of slavery in the Convention.


elektratig said...

Thanks Prof. I hadn't seen this one before. Sounds rather conspiratorial - if one person can conspire with himself. It's fascinating the divergent theories that the 3/5th clause inspires. I recently read George William Van Cleve's A Slaveholders Union, in which Van Cleve argues almost the opposite, that the clause was almost inevitable after the Constitutional Convention agreed to equal state voting in the Senate.

Conscience Whig said...

I think both interpretations can be true--that it was required to placate the South, and that it constituted a basic flaw in the system. All of which is as much as to say that a system of complete individual domination over other humans did not sit well within what was supposed to be a democratic republic.