Wednesday, May 30, 2012


"The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take."

I've seen something come up every so often and it is annoying every time. When the founding fathers and the constitution are mentioned, inevitably some leftist will claim that it enshrined the concept of blacks being worth less as humans. The most recent example I've seen is at Ann Althouse's blog where she writes about a Garry Wills piece on Romney and Mormonism (asking all the same questions that were asked about JFK decades ago). Wills is just "asking questions" and he writes:
Does the First Amendment actually separate church and state, or does that not count, since it is merely an amendment, not the original word of God? But why, then, did a mere amendment change the first inspiration that made slaves less than full persons?
Now, I understand that many folks in America - especially on the left - have little real literacy when it comes to the US Constitution. That's inexcusable given how easy the thing is to find and how short and simple it is, but that's modern education for you. They know how to identify diversity and say they like homosexuality, but they don't know what the 9th amendment says.

The part he's referring to in the constitution is this:
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.
That's in Article 1, section 2. The usual cry is that this reduces blacks to less than a full human being - just over half, by proportion. And that's simply idiotic.

Just looking at the context and reading the actual sentence involved tells the tale: this is about how to apportion representatives and taxation. It isn't about worth as humans, it is about statistics. A little history helps here. When the US Constitution was being debated and written, every state in the union had slaves - just like every nation on earth had slaves. Some states had more, particularly the southern agrarian states which relied on slave labor for their plantation work.

The US House of Representatives is proportional to the number of people in each state. So if you have more people in your state, you get more representatives. These slave-heavy states wanted to count all their slaves when it came to how many legislators they got in congress, thus increasing their power. The other states were disinclined to allow this, since the slaves plainly were not going to be represented by these congressmen and were powerless to vote. It was simply a trick to pack the House with southern legislators.

So a compromise was reached: this section was written so that slaves were somewhat represented, to mollify the southerners, but it also attached taxes to this proportion, so that slaves added more to a state's tax burden. The end result didn't make anyone happy, but it was tolerable enough that the document eventually got signed.

This had nothing to do with the relative worth of blacks, slave or free. It had nothing to do with perceived humanity - if anything, the south was treating slaves as more human than the north wanted to, in the sense of wanting them to count for representation. It was not a statement enshrining slavery in the constitution or demeaning blacks. It was a reluctant deal to get the document finished and signed representing the reality of the day.

Did the 3/5ths compromise get used later by ignorant people to argue slaves were less human? Yes. People misuse and confuse things regularly, especially ignorant, bigoted jerks. But the compromise had nothing to do with dehumanizing blacks or federally establishing slavery.

Note: Native Americans were not counted at all. Does that mean they were considered inhuman? No, it means they were considered separate nations and not represented in congress by legislators.


Anonymous said...

Your reading seems selective, to say the least. It's true that Art 1 sec 2 doesn't stipulate anything specifically about the humanity of anyone. But then again, there's nothing in the Constitution anywhere about humanity. It's a legal document, not a moral one.

Slavery was the biggest debate concerning the Constitution - a debate that almost derailed the entire Republic. Despite slavery being omnipresent in the colonies/states, there was a sizable abolitionist movement, centered mostly in the North, that saw an opportunity for the USA to be the first nation to outlaw slavery, at a time when that was a profoundly radical notion. It didn't succeed.

The 3/5ths rule was a crude compromise on the question of slavery, framed in the language of a legal document. Taxation and representation are the two main ways people are evaluated in a legal setting. Slaves were counted as 3/5 the value of a free man - in a legal statement being used as a compromise in a debate that wasn't limited to legality. As a nation, we had a chance to abolish slavery, and didn't. We compromised. The legal document has moral bearing, and the moral statement is not a pleasant one.

You can say that the compromise "had nothing to do with dehumanizing blacks or federally establishing slavery," but only if you turn a blind eye to the moral questions that surround that compromise, then and now.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I thought I laid out the historical and moral issues of the day pretty well in my post.

Anonymous said...

You did, but your conclusion doesn't really connect them. A legal compromise rooted in a moral debate ends up making a moral statement. The 3/5ths compromise, then and now, makes a moral statement about the worth of individuals. It's a dehumanizing statement.

Christopher R Taylor said... the historical bit about representatives in the house being why the 3/5ths means that they thought blacks were less than human? How do you reach that conclusion? It was about reducing the power of southern states as much as possible by preventing them from exploiting slaves to gain more representatives.

Anonymous said...

The 3/5ths is a legal compromise on a moral issue. The compromise assesses slaves (slaves, not blacks - free blacks were a whole other quagmire) at 3/5ths the legal value of a white man. As a legal document has moral reverberations, this makes a moral statement as to their humanity, valued at 3/5ths.

(Representation is something of a red herring in this discussion, as Southern states getting more representatives obviously doesn't translate into slaves getting representation in government.)

Chris said...

Are reverberations equivalent to penumbras, or are they only 3/5?

Anonymous said...

If you don't think the language of the Constitution has bonafide moral implications, your analysis is maybe 3/5ths shadowy, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I guess the fact that black citizens got full representation has no bearing at all on this guy's understanding of the issue.