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Article 2.3 – Slavery and the Constitution: A Compromise Between the North and South

Slavery and the Constitution: A Compromise Between the North and South


The “Institute on the Constitution” (IOTC) teaches us that the majority of our Founders were Christian, most of them had a Biblical World View, and they founded America on Biblical principles.  The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written with this Biblical World View in mind.  If all of this is true, then why didn’t our Founders abolish slavery from the very beginning?  Why wasn’t the wording of the Constitution (prior to the War Between the States) more decisive about slavery?  Let’s take a closer look at this!


The following excerpts are from the book, “Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White,”  by David Barton.  These excerpts deal with the debate over slavery during the creation of the Constitution and long before the War Between the States.  Slavery was a huge dividing issue between the Northern and Southern States.  This matter was not going to go away overnight.  It would take time!  If there had not been some sort of compromise reached between these factions, the States may not have been able to come together at all and agree to establish the U.S. Constitution.)


Excerpts from pages 6-7: “… while students in school early learn that the first load of slaves sailed up the James River in Virginia in 1619 and thus slavery was introduced into America, few learn about the first slaves that arrived in the Massachusetts Colony set up by Christian Pilgrims and Puritans.  When that slave ship arrived in Massachusetts, the ship’s officers were arrested and imprisoned and the kidnapped slaves were returned to Africa at the Colony’s expense.  That side of history is untold today.  A similar omission occurs when the signers of the Declaration of Independence are discussed.  For example, if asked to list the slave-owning Founding Fathers among the signers, no one would hesitate to name Thomas Jefferson.  But if asked to name a second slave-owner from among the 56 [signers,] few other names would be mentioned.  And if asked to name the anti-slavery leaders who signed the Declaration, probably no one would mention Samuel Adams – or Stephen Hopkins, or Benjamin Rush, or Elbridge Gerry, or James Wilson, or John Adams, or Roger Sherman, or Benjamin Franklin, or John Witherspoon, or many other anti-slavery Founders…”


“Today, black history too often is presented just from a southern viewpoint, describing only slavery and its atrocities as well as the numerous civil rights violations that continued well beyond the end of slavery.  Yet there was also what may be called a northern viewpoint, with many praiseworthy events; and to be completely accurate in the telling of black history, the story must be told not only of the martyrs but also of the heroes…”


Excerpts from pages 9-13: “Today, many critics assert that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, and to prove this, they point to the Three-Fifths Clause” [Article I, Section 2.3.] “claiming that the Constitution says that blacks are only three-fifths of a person.”


“One of the earliest black Americans to investigate this claim was the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  Douglass had been born into slavery and remained a slave until he escaped to New York in 1838… During the Civil War, Douglass helped recruit the first black regiment to fight for the Union, and he advised Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation…”


“During Douglass’s first years of freedom, he studied at the feet of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who taught him that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document… However, Douglass later began to research the subject for himself; he read the Constitution; he read the writings of those who wrote the Constitution; and what he found revolutionized his thinking.  He concluded that the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document.  He explained:

             I was…fully committed to [the] doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the Constitution… I            advocated it with pen and tongue, according to the best of my ability… Upon a reconsideration of        the whole subject, I became convinced… that the Constitution of the United States not only            contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, on the contrary, it is in its letter and spirit an anti-slavery      instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law   of the land…”                                                                                                                                      

“If the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slaveholding instrument, why        neither [the words] slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it?  … Now, take the     Constitution according to its plain reading and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.     On the other hand, it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the            existence of slavery.”


“But if the Constitution is not a pro-slavery document, then what about the Three-Fifths Clause?

[Article I, Sec. 2.3.]  Had Douglass not read that clause?  Yes, he had.  Then how could he conclude what he did about the Constitution?  Douglass understood that the Three-Fifths Clause dealt only with representation and not the worth of any individual. The Constitution had established that for every 30,000 inhabitants in a State, that State would receive one representative to Congress.  The Southern States saw this as an opportunity to strengthen slavery since slaves accounted for much of the southern population…  Therefore, slave-owners could simply count their slaves as regular inhabitants, and by doing so could greatly increase the number of their pro-slavery representatives to Congress.


Of course, the anti-slavery Founders from the North strenuously objected to this plan… [they] wanted Free Blacks counted, but not slaves if counting slaves would increase the power of slave-owners.  They understood that the fewer the pro-slavery representatives to Congress, the sooner slavery could be eradicated from the nation…


Several other Founders… even used the slave-holders own arguments against them…


These anti-slave Founders argued that if the South was going to count its ‘property’ (that is, its slaves) in order to get more pro-slavery representation in Congress, then the North would count its ‘property’ (that is, its sheep, cows, and horses) to get more anti-slavery representation in Congress.  Of course, the South objected just as strongly…


The final compromise was that only 60% of slaves – that is, three-fifths of slaves – would be counted to calculate the number of southern representatives to Congress.  In other words, it would take 50,000 slaves rather that just 30,000 before slaveholding States could get an additional representative in Congress, thus greatly reducing the number of representatives to Congress from States with extraordinarily large slave populations.


This, then, is the Three-Fifths Clause – it had nothing to do with the worth of any individual; in fact, Free Blacks in the North and the South often were extended the full rights of a citizen and regularly voted – both in the North and South.  The Three-Fifths Clause had only to do with representation;  it was an anti-slavery representation: it was an anti-slavery provision designed to limit the number of pro-slavery representatives in Congress.”


To summarize the previous excerpts:

Despite what many believe, the overwhelming majority of Founders were anti-slavery and wanted to abolish slavery in the “new” America.  They realized, however, that if they totally eliminated slavery from the “get-go” with wording in this new Constitution, the Southern States would never have joined them in establishing a U.S. Constitution for ALL States.  So, they attempted (and succeeded) to reach a compromise with the Southern States that would be agreeable for both sides and hopefully “buy some time” to continue to work toward the ultimate goal of abolishing slavery.  The wording used in the Constitution BEFORE the War Between the States and BEFORE the 13th, 14th and 15 Amendments is the result of this compromise.  During this time in the life of the Constitution, the wording attempted to discourage slavery, while at the same time strived to promote a “United” States of America, with ALL States participating in the development of the Constitution.  After the War Between the States, of course, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were added to the Constitution and provided the wording that “officially” abolished slavery.


Summarized by Bryan & Janice Snyder

“Institute on the Constitution” Leaders

Huntsville, Ohio