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Three-fifths compromise, compromise agreement between delegates from the Northern and the Southern states at the United States Constitutional Convention (1787) that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining direct taxation and representation in the House of Representatives.
Many of the Founding Fathers acknowledged that slavery violated the ideal of liberty that was so central to the American Revolution, but, because they were committed to the sanctity of private property rights, the principles of limited government, and the pursuit of intersectional harmony, they were unable to take bold action against slavery. Moreover, the Southern Founders’ thoroughgoing embrace of slave-based agriculture and their deeply ingrained racial prejudice solidified the barriers against emancipation. That the Continental Congress removed Thomas Jefferson’s statement regarding the injustice of the slave trade (and, by implication, slavery) from the final version of the Declaration of Independence is emblematic of the Founders’ resolve to subordinate the controversial issue of slavery to the larger goal of securing the unity and independence of the United States.
Notwithstanding the initial disagreements over slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers of the Constitution continued to privilege the maintenance of unity of the new United States over the eradication of slavery by resolving to again diffuse sectional tensions over the matter. As they went about creating a new scheme of government, the delegates from the small and large states were divided on the issue of the apportionment of legislative representation. The Virginia, or large state, plan provided for a bicameral legislature with representation of each state based on its population or wealth; the New Jersey, or small state, plan proposed equal representation for each state in Congress. Neither the large nor the small states would yield, but the deadlock was resolved by the Connecticut, or Great, Compromise, which resulted in the establishment of a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house and equal representation of the states in the upper house.
The matter of how to determine population was anything but trivial. Having failed to secure the abolishment of slavery, some delegates from the Northern states sought to make representation dependent on the size of a state’s free population. Southern delegates, on the other hand, threatened to abandon the convention if enslaved individuals were not counted. Eventually, the framers agreed on a compromise that called for representation in the House of Representatives to be apportioned on the basis of a state’s free population plus three-fifths of its enslaved population. This agreement came to be known as the three-fifths compromise:
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
It should be noted that neither the word slave nor the word slavery appears in this clause or anywhere in the unamended Constitution.
Granting slaveholding states the right to count three-fifths of their population of enslaved individuals when it came to apportioning representatives to Congress meant that those states would thus be perpetually overrepresented in national politics. However, this same ratio was to be used to determine the federal tax contribution required of each state, thus increasing the direct federal tax burden of slaveholding states. Provision was also added to the Constitution for a law permitting the recapture of fugitive slaves, along with a moratorium until 1808 on any congressional ban against the importation of slaves, though in the meantime individual states remained free to prohibit slave imports if they so wished.