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Today’s political misconception is the one about enslaved African-Americans being counted as three-fifths of a person in the United States constitution. It’s true; it was spelled out in Article 1 until repealed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. But the assertion that an African-American amounts to only 60% of a white person is only part of this law.

The complete meaning is worse than that. Much worse.

The question the delegates were wrestling with was: Since states are represented in the House of Representatives based on their population, how do enslaved people count toward that representation? The abolitionists’ answer was “They don’t,” which was logical, since slaves were not treated as human beings under the law and certainly weren’t permitted to vote, themselves. Why should their owners get more representation based on that enslavement? The southern answer, illogically but expediently, was “The same as free people.” A family of ten that owned 90 slaves would therefore have the representation in Congress due 100 people. (Of course, it was not the individual or family, but the state as a whole that got the representation.)

Slave states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without getting to count slaves toward their Congressional representation, and two slave states were needed to reach the nine out of 13 needed for ratification. After much wrangling, the delegates reached the Three-Fifths Compromise.

It would be bad enough if the article meant what it is often misunderstood to mean: that each free person is 100% of a citizen and each enslaved person is 60% of a citizen. But in fact, enslaved people didn’t count at all, except in order to benefit those who enslaved them. (Important aside: Indians were explicitly placed outside the count entirely; I don’t know to what extent that was a recognition that they were citizens of their own nations living among the citizens of the U.S., and to what extent it was an assertion that they were personae non gratae, though I can hazard a guess. Free blacks were counted the same as whites, but their numbers in the slave states were negligible at the time.) Slaveowners among the delegates had the chutzpah to argue that “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites” (Charles Pinckney, SC), although they certainly weren’t arguing for racial equality in any other context. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wanted to count pieces of their property towards their representation, exploiting the fact that that property resembled a human being, though in their view “it” was not.

The Three-Fifths Compromised enshrined one of the most despicable facts of the U.S. slavery system: enslaved people were regarded as people when it benefited the enslavers, livestock when it didn’t. Thus, on the one hand, an enslaved woman had no rights her owner was bound to respect, as if she were a cow or sheep. On the other hand, the owner could have sex with her, something that would have been both taboo and illegal for him to do with non-human property, and their offspring would be considered human children (and, of course, the owner’s property). Likewise, bounty hunters and hunters of runaway slaves delighted in the opportunity to have prey that were so intelligent. Human escapees offered them a challenge that deer, bears, and wild pigs did not. But like the animals, they could be caught, tortured and killed with impunity.

The three-fifths rule was another means by which white supremacist governments had things both ways. People who were enslaved could not vote, nor had any rights that distinguished them from livestock, but whereas having more sheep did not entitle a state to more representation, having human livestock did. Every person brought from abroad to the auction block in New Orleans or Richmond gave Louisiana or Virginia that much more power to maintain that enslavement. Each enslaved woman who, raped by an owner, gave birth to a child, was by compulsion strengthening the chains holding them all.

That’s what’s meant by “three-fifths of a person.”

Next post: Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting about “adoption”


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