This is one in a series of posts relating to slavery and the Constitution as part of Marquette University’s observation of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation during the 2012-2013 academic year.
The United States Constitution’s infamous “Three-Fifths Clause” dictated that for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives African-American slaves were to be counted as less than full persons. The somewhat obliquely worded section of Article I, Section 2, provided:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Although this provision has traditionally been cited as evidence that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document (though never actually using the term “slavery”), historians have more recently begun to emphasize the “anti-slavery” aspects of the clause, or at least to argue that it reflects an ambivalence toward slavery among the document’s drafters. Since white women and children, free blacks, and property-less whites were counted as full persons for enumeration purposes, even though they lacked the right to vote, hold office, or serve on juries in most situations, the decision to treat enslaved people differently from others who lacked full citizenship rights was clearly to the disadvantage of those who lived in states with large slave populations.
The actual effects of the Three-Fifths Clause on Southern representation in the House of Representatives were not as significant as one might think. As it turns out, counting slaves as full persons would not have shifted the balance of power in the House of Representatives to the South at any point between the ratification of the Constitution and the onset of the Civil War. Read more »