News and Commentary

PragerU: Why the 3/5ths Compromise Was Anti-Slavery

In a new video for PragerU, professor emeritus of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, Carol Swain, provides some historical context for “one of the most misunderstood clauses in the United States Constitution”: Article 1, Section 2, the Three-Fifths Compromise.

The famous clause states that Representatives shall be apportioned among the States “by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … three fifths of all other Persons.”

“Known as ‘the Three-Fifths Compromise,’ it raises an obvious question: How could the Founding Fathers who endorsed the idea that all men are created equal also endorse the idea that some men aren’t?” says Prof. Swain.

Swain tells the story of former President of Emory University James Wagner, who wrote about the issue in 2013, calling it “political bargaining” that was unfortunately necessary at that time in American history. Wagner’s colleagues were outraged, saying that he was supposedly excusing slavery and forced him to apologize.

Wagner, Swain maintains, didn’t need to apologize.

“Note that the Constitution does not say that a slave is not a person; it explicitly says that they are ‘persons.’ And it also does not say that a slave is three-fifths of a person, as many today mistakenly believe,” she says. “The ‘three-fifths’ description had nothing to do with the human worth of an individual slave, but everything to do with how many representatives each state would have in the U.S. Congress. For that purpose, states could only claim three-fifths of their slave population.”

She continues: “The three-fifths compromise was devised by those who opposed slavery, not by those who were for slavery. Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t the racists of the South who wanted to count slave populations less than white populations … it was the abolitionists of the North.”

Watch the video below: