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Constitutional compromises: The Three-Fifths Compromise

The Constitutional Convention made key compromises over slavery. Delegates, divided on the issue, agreed to phase out the international slave trade by 1808, but allowed domestic trade to continue. The Three-Fifths Compromise gave southern states more representation, counting each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person for population counts. These decisions had lasting impacts, leading to the Civil War.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In the last video, we discussed one of the compromises made at the Constitutional Convention, the compromise of the electoral college. In this video, I want to discuss a different compromise. The compromise over slavery. Now, you'll remember that one of the issues that the electoral college was trying to solve was the idea that perhaps the revolution and the concept of democracy had gone too far in the United States and needed to be reined in by the more elite class of American citizens who would be better able to make political decisions. But the flip side of this was whether the revolution had perhaps not gone far enough. In that, it didn't abolish the institution of slavery. Now, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention had sharply divided opinions over slavery. Those who came from southern states tended to be elite white men, who were themselves slave owners their own fortunes deeply tied into the institution of slavery. In the aftermath of the revolution, many northern states began to either outlaw or phase out slavery, recognizing that it was incompatible with the system of government defined around the concept that all men are created equal. But if they were going to replace the articles of confederation, they were going to have to find a way forward. And I would say overall, the slaveowners got their way more than not. Now, one anti-slavery aspect of the constitution was that it outlawed the international slave trade, starting in 1808. So, here in article one, it states that the migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the congress prior to the year 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation not exceeding ten dollars for each person. So they say, we'll give the international slave trade 20 years and then we'll get rid of it. And indeed, on January 1st, 1808, the international slave trade was outlawed in the United States. So, this middle passage in which enslaved Africans were taken from west Africa and brought across the Atlantic, the end would never be in the United States. But this doesn't mean that they outlawed slavery, and it doesn't mean that they outlawed the domestic slave trade, the trade in slaves between states or within states. In fact, up until about 1850, one of the largest slave markets in the United States was just around the corner from the White House and the US Capitol. So, imagine walking on the streets of Washington DC and seeing these buildings where democratic ideals are enshrined and then going around the corner and seeing women and children and men being sold and families being torn apart. It's a very powerful image. But, although the framers did agree to phase out the international slave trade, they made another compromise that was much more favorable to slaveholders. The Three-Fifths Compromise. Now, you'll remember that in deciding how the legislative branch would represent the population, in the Great Compromise, or Connecticut Compromise, they agreed that in the House of Representatives, the proportion of representatives would be based on population, whereas in the Senate, every state would have two senators regardless of its size. Well, the big question for this is who counts as part of the population? Is it just white men? Or do the large enslaved populations of southern states also count? Now, if you were a southern slave holder, you would have been strongly in favor of counting this population, because it means you get more representation, and thus more power in the House of Representatives. If you were against slavery or from a small state, or both, you would've been bitterly opposed to the notion that people who have no rights as citizens should be counted as citizens to give those states more power in Congress. So, here's what they decided, according to article one. 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. This three fifths of all other persons really means enslaved Africans. And you'll notice that the framers are really talking around slavery. In the part about the international slave trade, they said migration of such persons. Now they say three fifths of all other persons. In fact, the word slavery never appears in the original constitution. So, why do they say three fifths of all other persons or migration of such persons as states think it proper to admit? And honestly, I think the answer to this is that the framers were ashamed of slavery. They were ashamed that this institution existed in a democratic society. They knew that the eyes of the world, the eyes of history, would look at this document and this institution completely sullied the idea of a democratic government. So, as it says here, their agreement was that for every five enslaved people who lived in a state, three of them would be counted for the purposes of population. This is a huge victory for slaveholders, getting more power in Congress for having people who can't vote, who can't be citizens. Why did the delegates of other states allow this to happen? And I think the simple answer is that the constitution would not have been ratified were it not for this compromise, among others. The states of the south were too important to getting that nine out of 13 necessary votes to replace the articles of confederation with this new constitution. So, they made a compromise to make sure that the constitution was ratified and improved. But that compromise would have tremendous consequences for the generations of enslaved people who would live under that system. And for the nation when the Civil War broke out in 1865.