Three-fifths and the greatness that is The Corner

There has been, to my mind, a remarkable exchange among remarkable thinkers on my favorite blog, The Corner. It’s about something I’ve thought a lot about lately, as I’ve read multiple Lincoln biographies, biographies of various Founders—and other books about the Revolution and the Founding, including one by one of the participants in this conversation—and, of course, some discussions here on thinking out loud… regarding restoring our (written) Constitution.

I find the discussion remarkable both in timing—as we are about to inaugurate our first president of color—and in collegiality. A collegiality that I would like to emulate in my own blogging.

It begins with a wonderful post by Mike Potemra on the sanctity of human life (emphasis mine):

Sanctity of Human Life Sunday [Mike Potemra]

Yesterday was set aside by many denominations as a day to celebrate the sacredness of human life in all its manifestations. (President Bush has issued a proclamation honoring the day.) At the service I attended-at a church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-we heard the words of Psalm 139: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well. My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret . . .”

Human beings are indeed marvelously made, but we are also very creative in finding ways to dehumanize others who differ from us in various ways (skin color, stage of fetal development, religion, sexual orientation, political views-as I said, we’re creative). But the symbolism of this Tuesday is encouraging. Yes, it’s true that the new president is a 100 percent partisan of “abortion rights”-and that will indeed have very bad short-term consequences for the effort to protect unborn human beings. But it’s also true that we are installing as commander-in-chief a man whose skin color would once have left him, too, defined as “less than human” by American law. A black person can be president because there cannot, in reality, be something that is only “three-fifths” human. This, I think, is why young people are the demographic group most disposed to be pro-life: They are the ones most likely to be able to see past the prejudiced orthodoxies of the past, and see in an unborn girl or boy what is really there-one of us, marvelously made.

Barack Obama thus represents both the future and the past. In showing that America can get over anti-black bigotry, he represents our future. In resisting the idea that the unborn deserve protection, he is very much stuck in the past. I learned only very recently that it was the late and already much missed Rev. Richard John Neuhaus who suggested to George W. Bush the language that the not-yet-born should be “welcomed in life and protected by law.” That, I think and pray, is our future. It’s the deepest promise of our country.

Three Fifths of a Person [Rick Brookhiser]

It is impossible to fix this common misconception at this late date, but Mike is only the latest in the long line of those who misunderstand the three fifths rule. The ratio counting slaves as three fifths of persons was used in apportioning representatives in the House, and therefore also electoral votes. Slave owners wanted slaves counted as full persons; they would not be able to vote, of course, but their existence would amplify the political clout of their masters. Enemies of slavery at the Constitutional convention-Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King-wanted slaves counted not at all.

Re: Three Fifths [Mike Potemra]

I am, of course, well aware that the three-fifths rule was concerned exclusively with establishing proportions of electoral representation. But this legal fiction would never had had to exist had the full humanity of the African Americans been recognized by all parties-and thus the three-fifths clause remains, in my view, an excellent metaphor for the tortuous results that can ensue from the false premise of dehumanizing a group of people.

Re Three Fifths of a Person [Rick Brookhiser]

I’m sorry, Mike, the metaphor you are perpetuating is the irreducible wickedness of America. Jesse Jackson, heard in my youth, quoted in The Outside Story: “The founders, for all their brilliance, couldn’t count to one.”

Well, some of them (John Rutledge) wanted every one of their slaves counted to their credit, and most of them, including most northerners, were willing to split the difference in order to secure the union. But some of them wanted slaves freed from the beginning.

When we miscontrue the three fifths clause, we all tend to forget that it was controversial from the beginning, and that great efforts were required, and made, to overthrow it and its kindred abuses.

Re: Three-Fifths [Jonathan Adler]

Rick is certainly correct that the three-fifths compromise is typically misunderstood. I would like to add an additional clarification. Under Article I, Section 2, slaves — referred to as “all other persons” (that is, other than free persons, indentured servants, and “Indians not taxed”) — were to count as three-fifths persons for purposes of apportioning both political represenatation and taxation. Rick is correct that slave states wanted slaves to count as whole persons for purposes of political apportionment, but they also did not want slaves to count at all for purposes of apportioning direct taxes. Part of the compromise was connecting the two, so slave states would go along with the reduced representation.

While were on the subject, it is worth noting that, despite the text’s accomodation of slavery here and elsewhere, the document never makes explicit mention of the peculiar institution. Rather, slavery is always acknowledged indirectly, as with “all other persons.” This was no accident, for while a political accomodation was necessary to ensure ratification, many understood the existence of slavery was fundamentally at odds with the principles upon which the Constitution was based.

Re: Three-Fifths [Peter Robinson]

The words of a very great man:

I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government. Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in a man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.

—Frederick Douglass

Re: “Irreducible Wickedness” [Mike Potemra]

The history Rick alludes to with his understated phrase “great efforts” demonstrated that the wickedness of America is not irreducible. We lost hundreds of thousands of lives in the Civil War in an attempt to reduce it-after all the three-fifths compromises, Missouri compromises, and other efforts-and I join the historical consensus in believing that we did, in fact, reduce it. There will always be, sad to say, a certain level of wickedness in man (this side of the eschaton, at least), and our country is not immune to this. Indeed, the fact that certain political actors in recent history have abused the history of slavery to advance shallow, unwise, and narrow-minded agendas is only yet another proof that an original sin (in our country’s case, slavery) can have very far-reaching consequences.

Reading Rick’s comments, and those of a number of e-mailers, I think that a given writer’s level of heat on this issue is directly proportional to the amount of time that writer has spent arguing with race demagogues. I tend to live a sheltered life in this regard, avoiding the latter sort of folk, so I am rarely called upon to defend the character of the Founders on the three-fifths issue. So let me state my view as clearly as possible: I know they played a bad hand as best they could, and give them all due credit. But I’m sure no one will now deny that, on this issue, it was a bad hand they were playing-and that the three-fifths clause stands as a reminder that flaws can remain in even the most remarkable achievements of human ingenuity.


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