No, Rick Green, The Constitution’s Three-Fifths Clause Was Not ‘An Anti-Slavery Clause’

During a recent appearance on the Christian nationalist program “FlashPoint,” religious-right activist and commentator Rick Green repeated the bogus right-wing talking point that the Constitution’s infamous “three-fifths clause” was “an anti-slavery clause.”

Green, founder of Patriot Academy, is also the co-host of the radio program “WallBuilders Live” with religious-right pseudo-historians David and Tim Barton, and he obviously shares their desire to mislead their audiences about the issue of slavery to help them portray the nation’s founding in righteous terms.

During the “FlashPoint” appearance, Green complained that millions of “illegal aliens” are being counted toward the appropriation of seats in Congress, thereby giving Democrats a larger presence in the House. Green voiced his desire to see a constitutional amendment passed to allocate seats based on “only American citizens” as counted by the Census.

“That was the intent of the Founding Fathers,” Green declared. “That’s why they had the whole debate over slavery and the three-fifths clause. They were saying, ‘If you’re not going to let them vote and you’re not going to let them be citizens, you shouldn’t get to count them in your numbers toward Congress.’ The three-fifths clause, by the way, is an anti-slavery clause, not a pro-slavery clause.”

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, the issue of how the proposed new government would deal with the institution of slavery was a pressing concern, as southern slave-holding states made it abundantly clear that they would not join any union that threatened the practice.

During the debate over how to allocate seat in the House of Representatives, which was to be based on population, southern delegates asserted that their slaves should be included in the count whereas northern anti-slavery delegates insisted that slaves should not be counted at all since they were legally regarded as property in slave states. Eventually, a compromise was reached in which seats in the House would 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.”

While southern states did not get to count all of their slaves as part of their population in determining representation in the House, the compromise nevertheless gave them a distinct and powerful advantage.

As author David O. Stewart explained in his book, “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution“:

The politicians in the East Room calculated instantly the value of the three-fifths rule. If congressmen were allocated on the basis of population, an owner of 100 slaves (such as Washington or Madison) would count as 61 people-himself plus three-fifths of his slaves. This effect would be extended to presidential elections when the delegates created the electoral college to choose the president. The additional southern representation in Congress, and added sway in voting for the president, would be significant. With almost 700,000 slaves in the southern states from Maryland to Georgia, and an allocation of one congressman for every 30,000 persons, the three-fifths ratio gave the South at least a dozen additional congressmen, and a like number of additional electoral votes. To defeat the small states and achieve representation based on population, Wilson paid a high price: powerful reinforcement of the slave interest.

Predictably, southern states used their increased power in Congress to protect their interests, much to the outrage of northern states, which quickly realized the error of the “compromise.”

From “The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution” by Harvard professor Michael Klarman:

Over time, the three-fifths compromise that the convention had approved became increasingly objectionable to many northerners. After the presidential election of 1800, some Federalists attributed Jefferson’s narrow victory over John Adams to the three-fifths rule, which led them to disparage Jefferson as the “Negro president.” Northerners’ dissatisfaction with the Three-Fifths Clause only grew when, in 1803, President Jefferson consummated the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly extended the geographic scope of the United States, adding territory that was ripe for the expansion of slavery. In a letter written that year, Rufus King [an anti-slavery signer of the Constitution] called the Three-Fifths Clause one of the Constitution’s “greatest blemishes,” and he urged northerners to treat the clause as inapplicable to states added to the union as a result of Jefferson’s bargain with Emperor Napoleon. King also insisted that northerners had been “injudiciously led to concede to this unreasonable provision” on the supposition that Congress “must resort to direct taxes,” in combination with “the maxim that taxation and representation are inseparable.” In 1804, the Massachusetts legislature proposed repeal of the Three-Fifths Clause, though only Connecticut and Delaware supported such a constitutional amendment.

By 1820, the Three-Fifths Clause was in effect translating into eighteen additional southern congressional representatives, and it had become a consistent target of northern criticism. That year, when Congress was consumed by heated sectional debate over the admission of Missouri to the union as a slave state, King acknowledged in the US Senate that “the disproportionate power and influence allowed to the slaveholding states was a necessary sacrifice to the establishment of the Constitution,” and that “faith and honor stand pledged not to disturb it.” Yet he insisted that “the extension of this disproportionate power to the new states would be unjust and odious”—especially since none of the Founders had “anticipated the fact that the whole of the revenue of the United States would be derived from indirect taxes which cannot be apportioned.”

Clearly, the three-fifths clause was hardly an “anti-slavery clause,” as Green asserted.

Furthermore, the Constitution contained two other explicitly pro-slavery provisions: Article I’s prohibition on Congress passing any law to ban the slave trade for at least 20 years, and Article IV’s Fugitive Slave Clause, which required that escaped slaves be returned to their owners.

As Right Wing Watch has noted before, the willingness to misrepresent history has become a common theme among Christian nationalists who time and again spread blatant falsehoods in defense of their right-wing ideology.

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