The Right Coast

July 14, 2004
A Fractured Sense of Fractions
By Gail Heriot

Here's one of my pet peeves: Why do so many people completely misunderstand the original United States Constitution's "three-fifths of a person" rule?

This time it's the Rev. Jesse Jackson. My friend John Fund reports in the Wall Street Journal's Political Diary news service (sorry no link possible) that Jackson recently questioned the analogy between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. "'Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution ...,'" he said. He thus implies that it would have been better to be regarded as a full human being.

The three-fifths rule was, of course, a compromise. Some people wanted to count each slave as a full human being. Some wanted to count them as zero. But it's important to remember who was on what side of the debate.

Slave owners wanted to count slaves as full human beings, not because they wanted slaves to enjoy the full rights of free and equal citizens. Perish the thought. The main issue under deliberation was how to apportion seats in Congress among the states. Southerners (including Southern slave owners) wanted slaves to count in the head count in the same way other non-voting persons--like unpropertied men, women, children, imbeciles, felons and the insane--would count. The propertied men would be presumed to be voting in the slaves' interest, just as they were presumed to be voting in the interests of their wives, minor children and other non-voters.

Opponents of slavery in the North recognized the three-fifths rule as a travesty. But their argument wasn't that a slave should count as a full human being. Quite sensibly, they didn't want slaves to be counted at all. In other words, they wanted slaves counted as zero (although they were no doubt comforted by the fact that, if Congress ever decided to impose a direct tax, slaveholding states would pay more if slaves were counted in the population). To count them as even three-fifths of a person would be to indulge in the complete fiction that Southern slaveholders were acting in the best interests of slaves.

Interestingly, the three-fifths rule had a major impact on history. Without it, for example, Adams would have been elected to a second term. Indeed, the long run of slaveholding presidents from Virginia--Jefferson, Madison and Monroe--would never have occurred. These men energetically opposed any discussion of slavery. In contrast, Adams took the position that to defer the issue of slavery indefinitely would eventually lead to catastrophe. And, of course, he was right. It makes you wonder if we'd be better off today had opponents of slavery gotten their way on the apportionment issue and slaves been counted as zero. Perhaps emancipation could have occurred earlier and with less bloodshed.