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GOP state lawmakers: The Three-Fifths Compromise was actually good

In the course of arguing against teaching about systemic racism in schools, some GOP lawmakers suggest the original constitutional sin was somehow anti-slavery

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Lafferty (R) on May 4, argued that the Three-Fifths Compromise was, “for the purpose of ending slavery.” (Video: Tennessee General Assembly)

Republican lawmakers across the country are moving to restrict teaching about systemic racism in our education system, targeting critical race theory. But in the course of doing so, some are attempting to rewrite a very pertinent part of that history.

Twice in recent weeks, Republican state lawmakers have defended the infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise” — the constitutional agreement by which enslaved people would count as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes — by arguing that it was actually somehow anti-slavery.

“The Three-Fifths compromise was a direct effort to ensure that Southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country,” Tennessee state Rep. Justin Lafferty (R) claimed Tuesday.

Lafferty added: “By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery — well before Abraham Lincoln, well before Civil War. Do we talk about that? I don’t hear that anywhere in this conversation across the country.”

In fact, if he looked closely, he would have seen a version of his claim during a similar debate in Colorado a few weeks ago. In that one, state Rep. Ron Hanks (R) claimed that “the Three-Fifths Compromise was an effort by non-slave states to reduce the amount of representation the slave states had. It was not impugning anybody’s humanity.”

Or in 2019, when Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum (R) claimed that “the three-fifths vote was actually to eliminate the overwhelming influence the slave states would have in representative government.”

The Three-Fifths Compromise, reached during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, is a complex topic. It put states that permitted slavery in the position of arguing that enslaved people should count for more than three-fifths, because they wanted the representation that came with that (albeit without letting enslaved people be free or actually vote for that representation). States that did not permit slavery argued for less, because they feared such representation would make the South too powerful. The compromise eventually landed upon three-fifths.

But generally speaking, historians don’t count this as anything amounting to anti-slavery. Indeed, the historian Staughton Lynd wrote that the compromise “sanctioned slavery more decidedly than any previous action at a national level” because, while not technically codifying slavery into law, it acknowledged a difference between free people and “other Persons.”

In addition, while the result of a compromise, historians generally agree it was a good one for the South and the institution of slavery. Historians including Lynd and others have posited that the South got more from the Three-Fifths Compromise, while Northern states that did not permit slavery got a prohibition on slavery in what was then the Northwestern Territory during separate debates.

Was it everything the South wanted? Of course not. The South wanted enslaved people to count the same as other people for population purposes, even as it regarded them as property. But just because it wanted more doesn’t mean the compromise wasn’t favorable for it. Indeed, contemporary writings from northern founders suggested they were worried that the Southern states might abandon the process without favorable terms on slavery in the existing states.

This is hardly a new claim, particularly in conservative circles. Glenn Beck promoted the idea in 2010, and it has cropped up from time to time over the years. Given the Three-Fifths Compromise is frequently cited as the original constitutional sin when it comes to institutionalized or systemic racism, it would make sense that it’s something opponents of teaching that would seek to call into question. It was quite literally something that was built into our system of government from its founding.

Slavery was eventually outlawed, but not until Northern states gained in population to counteract the advantage the Three-Fifths Compromise had given Southern states and not until a war had to be fought over the matter. There is basically nothing in the historical record to suggest this was somehow a deft maneuver by Northern states to pave the way for that 80 years later — even if that was somehow a viable and foreseeable plan — nor was it pitched as such at the time.