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Three Fifths Compromise Impact on Slavery

Slavery is one of the most interesting parts of American history. It is counted as one of the bad parts of American history. The framers of the U.S. Constitution walked gingerly around the subject of slavery and did not write provisions into the Constitution that would abolish it. By not addressing the issue of slavery framers could be charged with endorsing slavery. According to Ryan Ervin, of Eastern Illinois University, the “delegates lack of conviction in doing anything about slavery is part of the tragedy of American history” (Ervin, 2006).

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention the delegates were deciding how many representatives were allowed per state. It was decided that the number of representatives would be determined by population counts. Delegates that were opposed to slavery (mostly northerners) declared that the number of representatives would be based upon the count of free inhabitants of the state. Delegates that were pro-slavery (mostly southerners) wanted the count to include all inhabitants, to include slaves. Including slaves in the counts would allow slave states more representation in the House and in the Electoral College. This would give an unfair advantage to the slave states. Delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention compromised by allowing the count of the whole number of free persons and would include counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person. This was called the Three-Fifths Compromise and was adopted as in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, of the Constitution. Although the slave owning states did not succeed in getting their slaves counted as a “whole” number, they did succeed at having the slaves counted at 3/5ths of a person. The Southern states representation was disproportionate just the same.

It is interesting to note that the Presidency of the United States was held by Southerners for fifty strait years prior to 1850. The south held this disproportionate advantage until the loss of the Civil War removed slave status in the United States.

In the Constitution slavery was indirectly mentioned. Slavery was not directly mentioned so as to not disrupt the balance of power within the Union. Slavery was still an issue in border states (those states along the border of the Union and the Confederacy where the slavery issue was still being debated). Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution called the ‘fugitive-slave clause’ states that:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom Service or Labour may be due.

Slavery was not ended sooner by the Constitution because President Lincoln’s biggest job was holding together the Union. Lincoln knew that pushing for the abolishment of slavery at the beginning of the Civil War would further fragment the Union. It is for this reason that Lincoln did not push for a constitutional amendment ending slavery. Many in border states were willing to fight to preserve the Union, but not to end slavery. This is why President Lincoln chose to wait until the Union had a good hold of the border states before he gave the Gettysburg Address.

Economically, slavery was a God send to the south. The cost of production by slaves was less than the same by free workers. The savings in production costs had the effect of increasing the value of the goods produced. Slave holders could make more money than their free counterparts. Because of the economic impact slavery had on the South the slavery issue was avoided by the framers of the Constitution. “As a consequence of these factors, the Southern states were determined to retain slavery after the Revolution. Thus began the fatal division between “free states” and “slave states” that led to sectionalism and, ultimately, to civil war” (Civil War Potpourri, 2002).

Slavery is again mentioned in the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Amendment 13 – Slavery Abolished

  1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
  2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Slavery was named specifically so that there would be no misunderstanding about who the 13Th Amendment was referring to. No references to the 3/5ths compromised were made as the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery also abolished the 3/5ths compromise. It was in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that citizenship was explained. The 14th Amendment provided that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”(U.S. Constitution). The 14th Amendment also legislated equal rights and protections under the law.

History since the 13th and 14th Amendments has been a rocky road littered with prejudices and prohibitions against slaves and decendents of slaves. The United States has come a long way but still has a long way to go when it comes to rights and protections under the law for all citizens.


American Psychological Association (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Burlingame, Michael. (2006). Firmness in the Right; How, and Why, Lincoln Ended Slavery. Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery.

Carnes, Mark C. & Garraty, John A. (2001). A short history of the American nation (8th ed.). New York: Longman.

Civil War Potpourri. (2002). Antebellum Slavery.

DiIulio, John J. Jr,. & Wilson, James Q. (2004). American government: Institutions and policies (9th ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ervin, Ryan. (2006). The Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Historical Perspectives. Web.

“Three-fifths clause” The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military. Berkley Books, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Boston Public Library. Web.

Welch, Susan, (2004). Understanding American government (7th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson.

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