What Is the 3/5 Compromise?

3/5 Compromise
The 3/5 compromise was an agreement that was reached in an effort to ratify the constitution.

The three-fifths compromise is an infamous passage in the United States Constitution.

The Constitutional Conventional introduced this compromise to bridge the interests of southern and northern states. This compromise proved to be a temporary measure.

What was the 3/5 compromise?

The 3/5 compromise determined that three out of every five slaves were counted when establishing a state’s total population. The total population count was, in turn, used to determine taxation and representation.

What Is The Three-Fifths Compromise?

Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution outlines how representatives and taxes must be split between states. The compromise itself is the phrase

“three fifths of all other Persons,”

meaning that every five slaves in a state would count as three free people to determine how many congresspeople a state would be allotted.

The Fourteenth Amendment has since superseded the three-fifths compromise. Not only did the fourteenth amendment remove the three-fifths clause, but it also included language that attempted to reduce states’ congressional representation if they prevented eligible voters from voting.

While the three-fifths compromise brought all states on board to ratify the constitution, regional differences and continuing debates over slavery, representation, and laws ultimately caused a bloody civil war.

Why Was the Three-Fifths Compromise Important?

The three-fifths compromise was a vital part of negotiations surrounding the constitution. Without this clause, it would have been difficult to persuade southern states to ratify the document, making it less likely that a unified United States would have been created.

photo showing man with a rope-bound wrist
European colonists used slaves as a cheap source of labor. As part of the 3/5 Compromise, the rights of 5 slaves would be equal to those of 3 normal citizens.

In addition, the institution of slavery contributed to regional and economic differences between the northern and southern states. Finally, as southern states had smaller populations of free whites, they would have been outvoted in Congress without the three-fifths compromise or another similar law.

The American slave economy

Slavery was somewhat legal in some European countries but unchecked in American and Caribbean colonies. So instead, European colonists used African slaves as a source of cheap labor on their plantations, transporting about half a million enslaved Africans to the United States.

While some African American slaves were kept in northern states, most were owned by plantations in the south.

Boone Hall Plantation slaves
Slaves at Boone Hall Plantation. Slavery was a total disregard for civil liberties and often were seen just as a resource.

Slavery saw an exponential increase in profitability after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, six years after the constitution was written.

How slaves affected the population

The first United States Census in 1790 illustrated a stark difference between the population of northern and southern states.

Massachusetts had a population of 378,787 with zero slaves.

Virginia had a population of 747,610, but 292,627 residents were slaves.

Without the three-fifths compromise, Massachusetts would have been allotted a similar number of congressional representatives, even though Virginia had nearly twice the population.

Regional political differences

The American Revolutionary War started over issues of unfair representation in government. Slogans like “no taxation without representation” inflamed the colonists against the British. This meant that the idea of fairly splitting power between states was essential to the framers of the constitution.

Plantation
Almost 300,000 residents in Virginia were slaves in 1790. Without counting slaves, Virginia would have far less representation. The 3/5 Compromise was highly beneficial for states like Virginia.

Despite the importance of this concept, however, the three-fifths compromise was perhaps more greatly influenced by political necessity than fairness.

Northern and southern states had very different economies, and this disparity would only grow as the Industrial Revolution progressed. 

Issues like trade and taxation would affect the regions differently, forcing constitutional delegates from southern states to fight tooth and nail for representation to ensure that future legislation would be fair for their states.

Different political ideologies

Northern states were ideologically very different from southern ones. In southern states, attacking the institution of slavery was virtually unheard of.

In northern ones, not only were abolitionists hard at work trying to enact laws to ban the practice, advocates were attempting to give women and blacks the right to vote.

They achieved varying degrees of success.

Ensuring Representation in Congress

These ideas (from a somewhat-unified block of states that was culturally and economically different) further contributed to southern delegates’ very valid fears about being overrun in Congress.

Without some consideration for their slave populations, these states would have had a tough time fighting against national abolitionist legislation.

As a result, the three-fifths compromise was necessary to protect the southern way of life.

The Civil War

The constitution was written less than a decade before the introduction of the cotton gin. The ability to efficiently process harvested cotton changed American slavery forever, as working an acre of farmland became much more profitable. 

Cotton
The introduction of efficient ways to harvest cotton gin made it far more profitable. Therefore, landowners were able to afford the purchase of more slaves.

This change deepened the ideological and economic divides between northern and southern states.

Had the constitution been penned as little as a decade later, it’s possible that the founders would have recognized this growing divide and produced a better solution than the three-fifths compromise.

In the 1850s, political tension surrounding the institution of slavery began to rise. So far, the three-fifths compromise guaranteed that southern states had the votes they needed to protect their interests. However, their ability to do so forever seemed to be crumbling.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the political climate changed, and southern states began to secede from the United States to prevent the seemingly inevitable creep of abolitionism.

The exact factors that led to the Civil War were numerous and complex. However, the three-fifths compromise’s most significant contribution was that it served as a short-term fix to a growing long-term problem.

Civil War reenactment
Disagreements over Slavery was a major contributing factor to the Civil War.

It was the political equivalent of throwing a rug over an issue and ignoring it.

Still, the three-fifths compromise was effective at stopping serious debate about change so that no meaningful progress could be made toward resolving the issue of slavery.

Introducing the Three-Fifths Compromise

The Three-Fifths Compromise in the Articles of Confederation

A proposed measure preceded the three-fifths compromise in the US Constitution for the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation assigned tax obligations to each state based on population.

A Virginian, Benjamin Harrison, suggested that an enslaved person should be counted as half of one person.

Several representatives from New England attempted to argue the number up to three-quarters before Founding Father James Madison proposed the three-fifths number.

The amendment was nearly passed, falling just two votes short of becoming law under the Articles of Confederation.

The Three-Fifths Compromise at the Constitutional Convention

During the Philadelphia Convention to draft the constitution, James Wilson and Charles Pinckney first proposed the three-fifths compromise.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia
The United States Constitution was signed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

James Wilson was an English-born legal scholar and orator responsible for preparing key pieces of the constitution, notably those concerning the executive branch.

Charles Pinckney was a delegate from a plantation in South Carolina who later served as governor of his state three times.

The core of their proposal that congressional representation in one house of Congress should be based on population was unanimously accepted in principle. The debate centered around the three-fifths number.

Northern state delegates argued that only voters should count, while southern state delegates argued that every person should count, regardless of their ability to vote.

Eventually, the three-fifths compromise was agreed to by a majority vote.

The initial idea was proposed on June 11, passing by a 9-2 majority.

The detailed debate commenced between July 9 and 13, and the three-fifths number was initially rejected 6-4. However, southern states quickly realized that a higher number would not pass, so they ultimately agreed to the compromise, allowing it to pass 8-2.

Differences Between the Three-Fifths Compromises

Notably, the three-fifths compromise in the constitution is essentially the reverse of the proposed amendment to the Articles of Confederation.

Under the Articles of Confederation, states were taxed based on their population, so they wanted a low population.

Under the constitution, states were given congressional power based on their population, so they wanted a high population.

This means that the same politicians who tried to argue one number in one direction may have tried to claim the opposite in a later debate.

The Legacy of the Three-Fifths Compromise

Disproportionate representation of southern states

Armed with census data, historians have examined the effects of the three-fifths compromise on the nation’s history.

Thomas Jefferson portrait
Thomas Jefferson may have lost the 1800 presidential election were it not for the Three-Fifths Compromise.

By removing congressional seats earned based on the slave population, it’s possible to estimate how different events could have played out with a slightly different vote count.

Notably, southern states would have been outvoted in the House nearly immediately.

In 1793, for example, slave states had 47 of 105 congress seats. Without the three-fifths compromise, this number would have been reduced to 33. In 1812, southern states had a thin majority of 76 out of 143 seats. Again, without the compromise, they’d have been a minority of 59.

The Electoral College ensures that presidential votes are apportioned based on congressional representation.

Historians believe that without the three-fifths compromise, Thomas Jefferson would have lost the 1800 presidential election to John Adams.

The loss of power by the Federalist party was a clear turning point in the early history of the United States. Had Jefferson not defeated Adams, Federalist influence would likely have continued and changed the country’s course.

Gone, but not forgotten

While slaves were ostensibly freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern states benefited disproportionately from their black populations for decades afterward.

In addition, freed slaves could vote, meaning they counted fully to determine congressional representation. All the states had to do was ensure they did not vote meaningfully.

Voter suppression efforts were wildly successful.

Disenfranchisement tactics included poll taxes, unfair literacy tests, and overt threats, including lynching.

The effectiveness of these tactics meant that immediately after the Civil War, Southern whites effectively had even more disproportionately advantageous representation in the House of Representatives than they did under the three-fifths compromise.

Like under the compromise itself, this increased representation gave Southern states disproportionate political power. This power helped shape important national laws, elections, and decisions for nearly a century.

Civil rights activism

Congress began investigating the tactics used by the Southern bloc in the 1900s, although these would continue in earnest for decades. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began to gain some traction, resulting in the passage of several federal statutes and a constitutional amendment.

Civil rights march
Civil rights march.

While some argue that voter suppression tactics continue today, these efforts are far less direct and much more likely to be successfully challenged in court than the tactics employed before the Civil Rights movement.

Discrimination, segregation, and racism were not exclusively Southern problems. States like New York employed measures that ensured that blacks were second-class citizens well into the 1950s and 1960s, a century after the repeal of the three-fifths compromise.

The Three-Fifths Compromise: A Weak Equilibrium

Compromise created deadlock

The importance of the institution of slavery in southern states was a key issue that shaped national politics as the United States continued to grow. Westward expansion became a major political issue in the coming years.

As settlers filled out new territories, they created the opportunity for new states to join the Union. Southern states used their political power (earned via the three-fifths compromise) to ensure that the US had an equal number of slaveholding and non-slaveholding states.

Slavery was the biggest issue that drove the Civil War, but the growing tension over the issue was a driving force behind armed conflict. The three-fifths compromise ensured that southern and northern states had similar amounts of political influence.

Since neither side had the power to force a resolution on the issue, tensions continued to rise. When Abraham Lincoln was elected to the White House, this equilibrium exploded into violent secession.

Politics over morality

Abolitionism and the morality of slavery were very much topics of debate among the Founding Fathers. These ideas were likely debated during the Constitutional Convention, although not in concrete terms.

To the Founding Fathers, building a nation was the ultimate goal. All other concerns were secondary. As a result, politically possible compromises (like the three-fifths compromise) were considered over politically difficult ones like the abolition of slavery.

Equal representation wasn’t always the goal.

The three-fifths compromise was not the only concession the Founding Fathers made in proportionate representation. 

While the House of Representatives has seats based on population, the Senate gets two representatives per state. This idea remains popular as it creates a different, smaller environment for debate and ensures that all states are represented.

Three-fifths Compromise Quiz

Click below for a quiz about the 3/5 compromise.

What is the Three-Fifths Compromise?

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