*I want to thank everyone who pitches in with guest posts, so that I can finish this book, particularly younger son and right-hand-wench Kate Paulk.*
Three-Fifths of a Lie – Kate Paulk
We’ve all heard the people who wrote the Constitution of the United States dismissed with a flip comment about how much modern people can trust someone who thought blacks were worth three-fifths of a person. Seeing and hearing comments like that from people who damn well ought to know better, people who should have some grounding in what the Constitution means and the context (you know, historians, lawyers… people who have supposedly studied this stuff) really gets my back up because the truth is so freaking obvious and it’s all there. It’s not like anyone’s tried to cover this up.
Way back in the ancient history (well, not quite) that was the late 1700s, some of the states coming into the fledgling United States of America had legal slavery, both the indentured and chattel variety. Some did not. The people writing the Constitution included representatives from slave states and free states. All of them wanted to make sure their states had reasonable representation in the new government.
And they argued. They argued over everything. I’m sure there were duels almost fought over the placement of every dot on every i. Some of those arguments make no sense to us now, while others still resonate – and one of the biggest sources of contention was in how the states were to be represented in the new government.
A simple representative system wouldn’t work: the states with the biggest cities and highest populations would completely overwhelm the voices of the smaller and/or less populated states. Think New York City telling Alaskans (rural or urban) what was a reasonable amount of heating to use (only then it was more NYC telling the ass end of PA or telling NH what they should be doing). At the same time, allocating each state the same proportion of representation would allow the small, rural, thinly populated states to dictate terms to the big urban states.
They weren’t going to get agreement with either option – and they knew if they couldn’t come to some kind of agreement, there wouldn’t be a United States.
For the legislative branch, obviously, they went with the lower house being the purely population based one, and the upper having equal representation per state.
For the Presidency (and back then, the Vice President’s office as well), what ultimately emerged was something I grew up with in Australia: to win, the President needs to win a majority of votes in a majority of states – it’s not phrased quite that way, but that’s how the Electoral College works out, made a little less obvious by the way each state has its allocation set according to the state population. The basic idea to ensure that anyone elected to the Presidency had a reasonably broad appeal.
Which led to a rather thorny problem and what I’ve been known to euphemistically describe as animated discussion.
To determine how many Electoral College votes each state could cast, a census was going to be used. But in the slave states, there were more slaves than free Americans, and while free men could potentially become voters, that wasn’t going to happen for slaves. This meant that if every person was counted, the slave states would have a disproportionate influence over the nation.
But, if the census only counted free people, the slave states would walk away from the union, something all the delegates at that first Constitutional Convention knew couldn’t be allowed to happen, no matter how distasteful the compromises they’d need would be. If the slave states walked, the free states wouldn’t be strong enough to protect themselves against the British Empire (and neither would the slave states).
What to do? If the delegates had gone with the more enlightened modern perspective certain people on the Intertubes seem to think they should have taken and counted everyone, the slave states would have dominated Congress, the Senate, and the Presidency. It’s likely that slavery wouldn’t have gone away until mechanical cotton harvesting became a thing – and became cheaper than housing and feeding slaves.
If they’d refused to count slaves towards how many electoral districts and how many Electoral College votes the slave states had, the union would have failed.
Instead, they went for the three-fifths compromise: for the purposes of determining how many Electoral College votes and how many electoral districts a state had, slaves would count as three-fifths of a free person.
This wasn’t an anti-black measure. There were free blacks and white slaves. It was an anti-slavery measure that worked to keep the slave states from leaving and to ensure that, per person, free states had a higher representation than slave states.
Claiming that the three-fifths compromise was because the delegates didn’t see slaves as people is at least three-fifths of a lie – and, like the curate’s egg, that makes it wholly deceptive.