From its founding as a sovereign nation in 1783 until the Civil War in 1861, America’s future was most threatened by slavery, and greatly exacerbating that threat was the event that occurred this week (July 12) in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. That is when the delegates agreed to the Constitution’s “Three-Fifths Clause,” which provided that slaves would count as “three-fifths of a [white] person” when determining population how many members of the House of Representatives each state would be allotted.
That “three-fifths” clause was a compromise between northern states and slave-holding southern states over whether slaves should count as full-fledged human beings – as southern states desired – or not count at all – as northern states desired – when deciding a state’s population, and the irony was that slave-holding southerners, who had long viewed slaves as nothing but property, were now arguing that they were really people, just like you and me, and should be counted as such. Meanwhile, northerners, many of whom viewed slaves as humans, were now viewing them more as property – like cows and pigs – and, therefore, slaves should not count at all. In short, principle was one thing, while increasing one’s population and therefore one’s political power in a major branch of the federal government was another.
In hindsight the South got the better of the deal; although, as the years went by, southerners increasingly felt otherwise. Indeed, a major cause of the Civil War was the southern complaint that, as South Carolina’s John Calhoun put it, northerners were increasingly trying to “destroy the equilibrium between the two sections of government” that had been put in place when the Constitution was created. He meant, of course, that northerners were trying to strip southerners of their political power in the national government.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say northerners were trying to restore the balance of power that had tipped so decidedly in the South’s favor because of the three-fifths clause. For example:
In the decade before the Civil War, the North’s population was twice the South’s, yet from 1788, when the Constitution was ratified, to 1850 – that’s 62 years – presidents from slave states served for 50 of those years, while Supreme Court chief justices from slave states served for 52 of them. Twelve of the 20 speakers of the House were from slave states, as were nine of the 14 secretaries of state.
Speaking of irony, the Civil War and the subsequent 13th and 14th Amendments gave slaves freedom and full citizenship, meaning they were equal to whites when apportioning House representation – just as southerners had desired. Problem was, those free Black citizens tended not to ally themselves politically with their former southern masters.