The Three-Fifths Compromise passed the deeply divided Convention on July 12, with six states voting aye, two voting no, and two states divided. The three-fifths clause—along with its theoretical baggage: that the Southern slaveowner’s representation was enhanced on the basis of his slaves—was therefore engrafted into the Constitution. And the original sin was later exacerbated, when it was decided to tie the number of presidential electors to each state’s allocation of Representatives and Senators (which would indirectly make the three-fifths rule apply to presidential elections as well as congressional ones). Although the Framers had attempted to tart up the appearance of the three-fifths clause by tying the same ratio to taxation, the real issue has always been about finding an equitable rule for representation, and this compromise has long been considered among the most embarrassing features of our founding document. But setting aside the theoretical problems, what about the practical effects of the clause? Which side “won” this contest?
Today’s students of the Constitutional Convention tend to assume that the three-fifths compromise was a grand victory for the South, but that is because they are comparing the outcome to what is now perceived as the only acceptable rule of apportionment: a “one-man, one-vote” rule that is based on free population. That standard of apportionment, however, was far from being the only perspective among those who were debating in 1787 and 1788, and this is true regardless of the region that was doing the debating. Most delegates had seemed satisfied that the balance of power between the two regions was about right; that is, that the compromise accurately reflected the relative political importance of each side. When the three-fifths ratio was first proposed, only two states had objected to it, and only because they did not want any form of proportional representation whatsoever. The objections only came later, when the implications of the clause (rather than the division of power) were made clear. Those delegates who objected to the three-fifths clause—both in the Constitutional Convention and in the ratifying conventions—based their arguments on the explicit use of slaves to augment Southern political influence; they did not argue that the Southern States had too much influence overall. Jefferson’s detractors called him the “Negro President,” because without the extra Electoral College votes awarded to states with large slave populations, he would not have won his election against John Adams. And during the crisis over the Missouri Compromise, Northerners, including Rufus King, who was then a senator, tried to prevent the three-fifths rule for apportionment from being applied to new slave states in the West.
If some of the Northerners would later accuse the Southerners of wrenching a concession from them that would unfairly inflate the South’s political importance, disgruntled Southerners would accuse the North of the same thing. Charles Pinckney, who had fought unsuccessfully to have slaves counted fully for representation, resented later attempts by Northern delegates to mitigate the effects of the three-fifths clause by excluding its application to the new states. In a speech before the House of Representatives, he argued in 1821 that the Northern States ought “to be highly pleased with their present situation; that they are fully represented, while we have lost so great a share of our representation; they ought, sir, to be highly pleased at the dexterity and management of their members in the Convention, who obtained for them this great advantage.” Each side would argue that the other side had gotten more than its fair share of representation, which is typically a sure sign that a real compromise has taken place between the two sides.
But the passage of the three-fifths clause also aggravated another problem that had already been an irritant in the Convention. Various members from several other states had wanted to outlaw the African slave trade for good. Now that the Southern States would be represented on the basis of the number of their slaves, the situation resulted in a perverse incentive for the South to add to the ranks of their enslaved inhabitants. Rufus King “never could agree to let [slaves] be imported without limitation, and then be represented in the national legislature. Indeed, he could so little persuade himself of the rectitude of such a practice, that he was not sure he could assent to it under any circumstances.” However, if the three-fifths clause would add to the South’s incentives to import more slaves, it would also increase the motivation that was already latent in many of the other delegates to put an end to the evil of the slave trade once and for all.