The Three-Fifths Compromise: Immoral Bargain Or Unavoidable Evil?

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.

2 Comments on “The Three-Fifths Compromise: Immoral Bargain Or Unavoidable Evil?”

  1. Rich Wareing says:

    Without the 3/5 compromise, there would have been no union, at least not in the sense we know it, there may well have been civil wars among the various states, and slavery would have continued at least as long as it did, if not longer. Also, without the union as it came to be, it is very debatable as to how long the states would have been able to maintain their independence vis-a-vis England, and even assuming the states were not sucked back into the British Empire because there was no solidarity among them, it is pretty debatable whether America would have grown to be the country it became, which has all sorts of implications (most of them bad) for things that happened in the 20th century, e.g. would anyone have been able to stop the fascists, or the communists?

  2. MKC says:

    I don’t know whether there absolutely would have been no union without the compromise. I think the compromise mainly just was politically expedient. It distributed political capital and set a balance of political power in a manner that was not complicated and that satisfied folks. Could there have been another solution to arrive at a similar relatively even allocation of power? Maybe, maybe. But this idea is the one they went with.

    I don’t think there was enough political will in 1787 to really assault the institution. I think a general fear of the government infringing on property rights was too great to outlaw slavery at the time (property rights being synonymous with “the pursuit of happiness” in the DoI). So this was a politically convenient way to allocate political power among the white men who ruled the country.

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