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The Three-Fifths Compromise

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The Three-Fifths Compromise

Of the many debates during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in creating the U.S. Constitution, one issue loomed over the delegates: the issue of slavery. At the convention, there were early abolitionist movements in the north and growing demand for slaves in the south, leading to a collision course of the debate over how the government would address slavery in the new government. Though the word “slave” or “slavery” is not used in the text of the U.S. Constitution, the three-fifths compromise and the clause it creates solidifies the system of enslavement in the United States. What does the three-fifths compromise mean? Who benefitted from the compromise? And what were the ramifications of the three-fifths compromise?

Background of the Three-Fifths Compromise

Regional differences over slavery between the northern and southern states had been much less pronounced in the early colonial era. In the first decades after the American colonies were founded in the early 1600s, northern colonies had as many slaves as southern ones, and neither had very many. But the situation changed dramatically over time. The longer growing season in the South enabled the cultivation of export crops such as tobacco, rice, and indigo. The demand for nearly year-round labor to produce such crops made slavery more profitable in the South.

By the end of the 1600s, the mortality rates of enslaved Africans in the colonies were falling, and the supply of white indentured servants diminished. For example, by 1750, close to half of Virginia’s population was enslaved labor, and in South Carolina, by 1720, close to 60 percent. In contrast, in the northern states such as New York, enslaved labor made up only 14 percent of the population, and in New Jersey, 7 percent.

The Three-Fifths Compromise

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who is depicted here, was the delegate who first suggested the 3/5 fraction be used in the Constitution. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Slavery was controversial at the Constitutional Convention, not because any of the delegates seriously considered abolishing it in the Constitution- though some vocal opponents saw the institution as aberrant- but rather because northern and southern states had conflicting interests on a variety of issues influenced by their very different levels of investment in the institution of slavery.

In the 1780s, the southern economy was based on the production of agricultural staples for export. The south had few manufacturers and imported goods and hired merchants to import and export goods. The agricultural economy made the southern states more inclined toward free trade policies. The north had a diversified economy, with many merchants and manufacturers, making them prone to more restrictive mercantile policies.

Did you know?

Because of the varied economies of the north and south, the delegates from these states had a keen interest in how much power their representative delegations would have in a national congress and how the Constitution would treat the representation of enslaved labor would have a significant influence over their allocation of representatives.

Types of States that Benefitted from the Three-Fifths Compromise

Most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention thought of the union as consisting of five southern states and eight northern states; the northern border of Maryland was the dividing line. In 1787, those five southern states had almost precisely the same population as the eight northern states- if enslaved peoples were counted. Therefore, if slaves were counted the same as free persons to apportion representation in the House of Representatives, the North and South would have equal power within that branch of the national government. If slaves counted for less, the southern states would be vastly outnumbered in the House- at least for the short term, as southern states wanted to maintain the practice of importing enslaved labor.

The Mason-Dixon Line, the northern border of Maryland, is considered the demarcation of the Northern and Southern States. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)The Mason-Dixon Line, the northern border of Maryland, is considered the demarcation of the Northern and Southern States. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Three-Fifths Debate

Because the southern states would benefit most from allowing slave representation, the northern states and their delegates at the Constitutional Convention began a heated debate over appropriating population and wealth to the issue of representation.

In 1787, most elite statesmen believed that political representation ought to reflect wealth and population, and some state constitutions reflected this belief.

What does this mean? It meant that many of the delegates felt that not only should the states with the largest population have more power in government, but that the wealthier states should also have more power than others. At the time, it was difficult to determine wealth through land value or monetary value.

At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates from South Carolina - among the wealthiest men in America- were the most vocal in insisting that congressional representation ought to reflect wealth and, in turn, reflect the owned property of enslaved labor as only the wealthiest plantation owners could afford slaves.

Many northern delegates sympathized with the notion that wealth should play a role in apportioning representation but disagreed that the counting of slaves should be used as a measure and not be counted at all. Moreover, northern delegates argued that:

  • if southern states did not count slaves in apportions representation in their legislatures. Slaves should not be counted as the population for representation in the national congress.

  • That counting slaves in representation would only encourage southern states to continue to import enslaved labor.

The Convention rejected the proposal for slaves to count equally in the House, but the debate continued. James Wilson of Pennsylvania proposed a compromise to allow the Convention to move on from the topic: Representation would be based on a free population plus three-fifths of the rest.

Wilson’s proposal for using three-fifths of “all other peoples” passed by nine states to two, but the debate continued over taxation and the importation of new enslaved labor.

Did you know?

The three-fifths figure was familiar to the delegates because an amendment had been proposed to Congress under the Articles of Confederation in 1783. The amendment changed how Congress would hand out financial requisitions to the states. Under the Articles of Confederation, states could request funding based on a formula of land value. But it became increasingly challenging to determine land value in an expanding country. The amendment proposed using enslaved labor as the measure, and the three-fifths fraction was the designated fraction. Though the amendment failed, many delegates at the Convention were familiar with the revision and debated using the fraction.

There were even divisive opinions among the southern states over this topic:

  • Planters from Virginia and Maryland, who had a stable population of slaves, wanted to end the importation of slaves from the Caribbean and Africa.

  • Delegates from North and South Carolina wanted to continue to import slaves as their population of enslaved labor was unstable due to relatively more harsh work environments.

Northern delegates, seeing this divide, seized the opportunity for compromise.

  • delegates debated and agreed to deny Congress the power to regulate immigration - and thus the slave trade- until 1808. After that date, it would be illegal to import new slaves into the United States.

  • To nullify objections by southern delegates, the compromise included the creation of the “fugitive slave clause” that allowed southern enslavers to reclaim enslaved Blacks and even white indentured servants who fled to other states.

The Three-Fifths Compromise Meaning

The outcome of this debate is known as the three-fifths clause, which was written in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner, as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative"1

Effects of the Three-Fifths Compromise

Over time, the three-fifths compromise became increasingly objectionable to many northerners. After the presidential election of 1800, some Federalists claimed that Jefferson’s narrow victory over John Adams only occurred due to the three-fifths clause. In addition, the expansion of the territory of the United States and the growing abolitionist movement made the three-fifths compromise more aberrant to northerners. Some northern congressmen even moved to have the clause not influence any new states created out of the Northwest Territory or the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The Three-Fifths Clause Effect on Representation
Let us do some quick math to show the effect of the three-fifths clause. The picture below is a chart of the populations of each state in 1790, broken down by Free White Men, Free White Women, Slaves, etc. Using this chart, we can calculate how many more representatives southern states received versus a similarly populated northern state. Take Virginia and Pennsylvania as examples. At the time, One representative was granted for every 33,000 people.
State: Total White Population Total Representatives without slave count addedTotal Slave Population Three-Fifths ClauseNew Total PopulationAdditional possible representatives
VA442,11713292,627175,576617,6935
PA430,636133,7372,242432,8780

This image shows a chart of the 1790 census. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

In 1804, there was even a movement for a constitutional amendment to remove the clause, but the motion failed to gain support. The compromise had a lasting impact on the United States. From the 1820s to the 1860s, southern planters dominated national politics through close to 18 additional southern congressional representatives. Their votes influenced key pieces of slavery policy in the United States, such as the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Ultimately led to the increased sectional tensions across the nation and the build-up to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

The Three-fifths compromise - Key takeaways

  • Growing economic differences between the northern and southern states made control over the legislative branch of the U.S. government crucial to the protection of the economic policies each region wanted.
  • This difference created an issue about representation and how populations of states would be counted to appropriate delegates to the House of Representatives.
  • Southern states wanted their enslaved populations to count as total population, increasing the appropriation of delegates. The Northern states did not want slaves counted.
  • The Three-Fifths compromise allowed for 3/5 of all non-free peoples to be counted towards a state's total population, end the importation of enslaved peoples to the United States in 1808 and allowed for a fugitive slave clause.
  • Over time, the three-fifths compromise became increasingly objectionable to many northerners as the issue of slavery continued to plague American politics and society through the 1800s.

1. Article 1 Section 2 Clause 3 | Constitution Annotated | Congress.gov | Library of Congress. (n.d.). U.S. Congress. https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/article-1/section-2/clause-3/

Klarman, M. J. (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press, USA.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Three-Fifths Compromise

The Three-Fifths compromise allowed for 3/5 of all non-free peoples to be counted towards a state's total population, end the importation of enslaved peoples to the United States in 1808 and allowed for a fugitive slave clause. 

The Three-Fifths compromise allowed for 3/5 of all non-free peoples to be counted towards a state's total population, end the importation of enslaved peoples to the United States in 1808 and allowed for a fugitive slave clause. 

Both compromises involved creating the legislative branch of government. The Great Compromise created the structure, the 3/5 compromise created the methodology on how representation would be counted in the House of Representatives. 

It was necessary in order to get southern states to agree to adopt the structure of the legislative branch. Though the southern states gained representatives, they had to agree to a date to end the Slave trade as a part of the compromise, which was seen as a victory for northern Abolitionists. 

Southern states controlled the House of Representatives for most of the early 19th century, by an average of approximately 18 additional representatives gained by counting 3/5 of all non-white individuals in their population. 

Final The Three-Fifths Compromise Quiz

Question

True or False: Even though some delegates to the Constitutional Convention saw the institution of slavery as horrible, there was no serious movement to abolish it in the Constitution.  

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Answer

True 

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Question

Which states had the highest percentage of enslaved peoples? 

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Answer

Virginia 

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Question

Why did southern states want enslaved peoples to be counted as part of their total population? 

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Answer

The larger the state population, the larger the appropriation of delegates in the House of Representatives

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Question

Not counting enslaved peoples, which region had the larger population, and thus, would have more delegates in the House of Representatives? 

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Answer

The Eight Northern States 

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Question

Counting enslaved peoples toward the total population, which region would have the larger population, and thus would have more delegates in the House of Representatives? 

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Answer

Both Regions would be nearly the same size in population 

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Question

Why did the northern and southern states strongly oppose each other's proposals for the appropriation of delegates? 

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Answer

The differing economies of the regions meant they had different views on economic policy. The region that controlled the House would control monetary policy 

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Question

True or False: The three-fifths clause was originally proposed as a method of calculating wealth under the Articles of Confederation. 

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Answer

True 

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Question

Who proposed using the three-fifths clause as a compromise over representation? 

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Answer

James Wilson of Pennsylvania 

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Question

In the Three-Fifths Compromise, what did the southern states earn? 

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Answer

The southern states earned more delegates to the House of Representatives based on their populations and the fugitive slave clause

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Question

In the three-fifths compromise, what did the northern states earn? 

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Answer

Ending the importation of slaves in 1808. 

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