Recently former U.S. senator Rick Santorum upset the liberal politicians and their like-minded cohorts in the media when he questioned how President Obama, as a black man, could be so insensitive to the “logic” of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision that denied personhood to the unborn child. Santorum opined that it was this same denial of personhood that enabled slavery to exist in the country for over two centuries. He also expressed concern that the abortion rate in the black community is excessively higher than the rates of whites or hispanics.
The ubiquitous Reverend Al Sharpton was particularly incensed by Santorum’s comments, and in a lively debate on Sean Hannity’s television show, criticized Santorum for bringing race into the question of abortion. The reverend’s comments defied the laws of logic, but one particular point he made about the plight of blacks through our history was the fact that the United States Constitution considered blacks as only three-fifths of a person, implying that the Framers were all basically racists.
A few days later, talk-show host Chris Matthews condemned a speech by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann where she asserted that the Framers fought for years to end slavery. Well, of course, some did; others did not. But Matthews, who apparently had not gotten the message about cordial speech in the public square, called Bachmann a “balloonhead,” and then said, “That’s not what our history was founded on. We founded (sic) on a Constitution which treated slaves as three-fifths of a person.” It was clear by his tone and a follow-up discussion with one of his guests that he, like Sharpton, saw the Framers as racists and the Constitution as seriously flawed.
Well, of course, the Constitution is flawed. After all, it is not divine revelation. But the disturbing aspect of Sharpton’s and Matthews’ criticism is that it is based on a racial myth, a myth that continues to be perpetrated in academia and the mainstream press. Any honest reading of history will clearly show that the Three- Fifths Compromise was actually an anti-slavery initiative. Let’s take a look at that history.
In early July of 1787, the Constitutional Convention was on the brink of dissolving without a new Constitution. The delegates had already agreed that the number of representatives for each state in the lower chamber of Congress would be determined by population. The more citizens a state had, the greater the representation and, thus, the greater its political power. But the Southern delegates, who had insisted that slaves were no more than mere property, wanted to count them as part of their states’ populations. The vast majority of Northern delegates would have nothing to do with this obvious power grab. Hope for a successful resolution of this impasse began to fade. But on July 12, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania moved that taxation of each state would be based upon representation. The more citizens a state had, the more taxes the state would pay. The Southern states did not want to pay higher taxes because they owned slaves. Consequently, they were willing to accept a compromise that allowed only sixty percent (three-fifths) of slaves to be counted as population. In return, the Constitution would require a mandatory census that would benefit the South as its population would grow.
All the delegates were familiar with the three-fifths formula in regard to slaves. The Continental Congress had used it in 1783 to apportion requisitions from each state to fund the government under the Articles of Confederation. At that time, the formula was established to equalize the monetary contributions of each state.
Now let’s take a look at a number of historical facts:
1. The Three-Fifths Clause reduced the political power of the Southern states.
2. The Northern delegates never declared that a slave was only three-fifths of a white man.
3. The Clause itself refers to slaves as “persons.” The same word is used in the Fugitive Slave Clause and in the 1808 cut-off date for the importation of slaves. Ex-slave Frederick Douglass said of the Constitution, “Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”
4. The day after Gouverneur Morris’s proposal was submitted, the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the Northwest Territory.
5. Had there been no compromise, the Convention would have failed, probably leading to an independent nation of the Southern states completely immune to Northern political pressure and demographic changes.
With the abundance of evidence available, why, then, do so many on the Left continue to use the Three-Fifths Clause as an example of white racism, particularly on the part of the Framers as a whole? I suggest that it’s either because of ignorance of history or part of a conscious agenda to continually stir the racial pot. After all, if racism were no longer a major issue in America, what would Al Sharpton and his ilk do for a living?