The often-missed meanings of the Three-Fifths Clause

There are negative assumptions made by people who have not read the Constitution about what the Three-Fifths Clause really means. Those who make such assumptions have no idea how wrong they are.

In the third paragraph of Article I, Section II of the United States Constitution, you’ll find a passage detailing how taxes and representatives for the House are determined, or rather, “apportioned.” This is where you find the Three-Fifths Clause. Read below:

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 [emphasis added].

It is assumed that the Three-Fifths Clause is separate from apportionment, but it’s not. If those who assume it to be a negative knew it limited the number of Representatives, it would not be considered so. Limiting the number of slave states is a positive, since it reduced the power of slave states.

Since the start of the paragraph begins with determining how many representatives there would be based on the population of each state, the Three-Fifths Cause drastically limited the number of Representatives from slave holding states.

Since only 60% (3/5) of slaves counted for the purpose of Representatives in the federal Congress, it meant there were fewer numbers in the House. It greatly reduced their power by limiting their representation in Congress — therefore, pro-slavery interests had less of a voice at the federal lawmaking level.

Abolitionists at the Convention wanted no apportionment for slaves, since those who supported slavery claimed they were property, and no other property was being included in the census. Those who supported slavery suddenly wanted slaves viewed as human, but only for the purpose of the census to increase their numbers in the House.

Neither side was happy with the compromise. And like all things that happened at the Convention to hammer out a new Constitution, both sides had to give.

Another negative assumption about the Clause is that slavery was written in the Constitution in order to codify it.

Slavery is not included in the wording for apportionment. The 3/5 Clause actually refers to slaves as persons. It is not slavery that was codified, but rather the reference to slaves as people and not property.

By forcing those members of the Convention who supported slavery to admit slaves were people was a major victory for abolitionists that should be celebrated by those who incorrectly assume the negative. Those who supported slavery had to admit slaves were not property, but people.

If people were taught the truth about the Three-Fifths Clause, there would be no negative assumptions made about the importance of what it actually did.

It did not codify slavery or refer to Black people as being three-fifths human. What the Clause did was greatly reduce representation in the House by slave owning states and made clear that slaves were people.

The Three-Fifths Clause is not negative, as is assumed by those who have never read it. It is positive.

Bob Ryan is a writer who has an MBA. He is an American Christian Zionist who staunchly supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. He has been a weekly blogger at the Times of Israel since 2019.

Image: Free image, Pixabay license, no attribution required.

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