The Three-Fifths Compromise: Immoral Bargain Or Unavoidable Evil?Posted: May 27, 2013
More than twenty years ago I began writing a book on dilemmas. Actually, it is more of a collection of dilemmas (the product of a tortured mind and soul), which I hope to publish as an eBook in the not-too-distant future. One of the dilemmas I collected was the “three-fifths compromise”–one of several deals the Framers made with the Southern, slave-holding states, to persuade them to sign on to the new Constitution. Under the three-fifths compromise, the number of representatives allocated to each state in the House of Representatives was based on the number of free citizens “and three fifths of all other persons” in each state. Southerners wanted all slaves counted; Northerners wanted none, hence the compromise.
The three-fifths compromise, along with the Fugitive Slave Clause, enshrined slavery in the text of the Constitution without actually mentioning it by name. Since the Constitution was ratified in 1789, scholars and lay folk alike have debated the morality of the compromise. Was the formation of what would eventually become the greatest nation on Earth so important that it justified sanctioning slavery? If the Northern states had pushed harder, could they have struck a constitutional deal that outlawed slavery? And if not, should the Northern states have decided that a union based on the recognition of slavery was just not worth it?
As President Obama once said, these questions are above my pay grade. Of course slavery was immoral and abhorrent And, in my view, the bargain the Framers struck at Philadelphia in 1787 virtually guaranteed the Civil War, just as many believe the Treaty of Versailles guaranteed the Second World War. It is not self-evident to me that the “benefit” of adopting the Constitution outweighed the moral “cost” of the compromise.
Check out this recent debate on the topic for competing opinions on this subject. When you are done, let us know what you think.