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A covenant with death, and an agreement with hell

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Not to pick nits, but I assume Steve Benen knows that the problem with the Federal ratio (e.g., “3/5 compromise”) wasn’t that it defined slaves as “three-fifths of a person” in any moral sense, but that it provided slaveholding states with additional representation in both the US House as well as in the Electoral College, thus assuring them of disproportionate influence in national affairs for generations longer than they deserved. Nor was the 3/5 compromise solely to blame for the South’s undue advantage. When Northern population growth overcame (to some degree at least) the malapportionment in the House by the 1840s, the effects of the Connecticut compromise extended the life of the slave interests even further, with the man-stealers and tyrants clinging to their artificial parity in the Senate. Indeed, if Elena Kagan would add “the United States Senate” to her list of “defective” innovations in the US Constitution, I’ll happily offer her my utterly meaningless endorsement.

That being said, it’s always worth remembering that Southern representatives at the Constitutional Convention would actually have preferred to classify slaves as “full” persons for the purposes of apportioning federal representation. Of course, these same delegates would have preferred to classify slaves as property for the purposes of assessing direct taxes on the states, since those taxes would be based on population figures. Though I understand the urge to see the 3/5 ratio as capturing the moral essence of the founders’ disposition toward race and citizenship — and to the degree that it helped preserve while political supremacy, there’s something to that claim — the compromise really didn’t mean what it’s conventionally taken to mean.

(Bonus nit-picking: It was the 14th, not the 13th Amendment, that kicked the legs out from the 3/5 compromise by apportioning representation according to the “whole number” of persons in each state.)

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  • Vance Maverick

    I don’t think it would have been immoral to provide the slaveholding states with additional representation, even to the “whole number” of the people in question, if those people had been treated as full citizens and individuals.

    • Vance Maverick

      But then I suppose we wouldn’t be referring to them as the slaveholding states.

  • You should have ended the post with “I would hope that Steve Benen knows better” and then you could have Benened Benen.

  • Warren Terra

    This is one of my pet peeves: we so often hear of the slaves being counted as 3/5 or a person- but slaves weren’t counted as 3/5 of a person: because they couldn’t vote, but their oppressors not only could vote but could use their presence in the census to accumulate additional political representation and power, which they would almost certainly use to vote against the slaves’ interests, it would be more accurate to say that the slaces were counted as negative 3/5 of a person.

    If the slaves had been counted as a dozen people apiece, it would have actually made their oppressors more powerful and made their lot worse, while weakening the voting power of people in non-slaveholding areas, the people who were the closest thing the slaves had to friends. Remember, the “3/5 compromise” came about because the slaveholders wanted the slaves to be counted as full human beings for the purpose of apportionment, and only for the purpose of apportionment.

  • Speaking of nitpicking, I would quibble with the assertion that the 14th amendment and not the 15th, “kicked the legs out of the 3/5 compromise.” The relevant clause in article I (section 2) states that enumeration shall count “the whole Number of free Persons….” Wouldn’t the 13th amendment have made slaves “free” by ending involuntary servitude, and thus made them ineligible to be counted as 3/5 of a person?

    The actual history behind this might be different, I realize. Maybe, for example, there was an inherent ambiguity between being a “free person” and being a person who no longer must be in “voluntary servitude.” At any rate, I’m glad the 14th amendment was ratified.

    • davenoon

      That makes sense… I suppose that’s the risk inherent in the picking of nits….

  • DB

    Excellent reply. A slave wasn’t 3/5ths of a person; a slave was zero fifths of a person. It was the slaveholder who got to be an extra 3/5ths of a person.

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