The most recent issue of Square Two featured this article, which included this line: “And don’t forget that the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being.”
I wrote them this message:
Re: “the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being.” This is just false.
Article I, Section 2 is about counting the population to determine how many representatives we get in government, which is why we have the census every ten years. That count was to enumerate “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. Free blacks were counted as a whole, which you fail to mention, and which counters the racist assertion implied in your piece.
That language isn’t meant to demean someone’s worth as a human being, but merely to reduce the total count. The strength of a state’s presence in government, in the House of Representatives, is determined by this count. This is why my state of Nevada has gained a third and then a fourth new representative thanks to the last two census counts.
Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all—that would keep the South from gaining more of a voice at the federal level; Southern states wanted them counted as a whole. The point of the three-fifths compromise was to reduce the South’s power.
Ironically, for those who see this part of the Constitution as racist, this rule did what it was supposed to do: it contributed to the eventual end of slavery.
Someone with the publication–not the author–sent me this reply:
Actually, allowing slavery under the Constitution is prima facie demeaning the worth as a human being of any human considered a slave. Counting them as less than a whole person is simply icing on the cake.
Rex E. Lee put it this way:
That is, from the general label “divinely inspired ,” some assume that the Constitution is tantamount to scripture, and therefore perfect in every respect, reflecting in every provision and every sentence the will of our Heavenly Father, just as is true of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. That view cannot withstand analysis. Our Constitution has some provisions that are not only not divine, they are positively repulsive. The classic example is contained in Article V, which guaranteed as a matter of constitutional right that the slave trade would continue through at least the year 1808. There are other provisions that are not as offensive as the slavery guarantee, but they were quite clearly bad policy, and certainly were not divinely inspired in the same sense as are the scriptures.
I thought this was basically a non-response of a dismissal, so I sent this in reply:
Thank you for your reply, though I wish it were more thorough. Not to be rude, but you completely ignored my entire argument, choosing instead to repeat an assertion, and then to essentially change the subject.
It seems you’ve put the Founders between a rock and a hard place. “Allowing slavery under the Constitution” means that they’re racists who demean the worth of others, though, if they’d tried to please you and abolish it outright then and there, they would have failed and there would have been no USA at all.
I’m sure you’re familiar, in the way of supporting that point, with Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, which called out slavery as a great wrong. That reference was deleted by consensus of the debate, as refusal to do so would have broken the coalition of colonies before they could even really start their project.
You might consider reviewing James Madison’s essay Federalist 54, where the tortured pathos of his effort to synthesize the obvious value of slaves as human beings with the sad fact of slavery is everywhere evident. Or is that nuanced reality also to be dismissed, as it does not perfectly agree with the simplistic retroactive judgments of our time?
Incidentally, even by claiming that the Constitution “count[s] them as less than a whole person,” you’re putting words in their mouth: the text says “three fifths of all other Persons.” A total is first reached, then divided. Saying that this means that each individual is somehow not fully counted is an unnecessarily jaundiced, prejudicial interpretation, don’t you think?
The Rex E. Lee quote is odd, as it doesn’t directly address the section in question. Are you avoiding addressing Article I for a reason?
But as far as Article V goes, it isn’t hopelessly racist, either. Calling it a “slavery guarantee” is itself another loaded word choice. Certainly, the Constitution doesn’t use that word. Like the 3/5 rule, this date was the product of compromise, a compromise whose end goal was clearly the *end* of the slave trade, an important step in its eventual abolition. It didn’t “guarantee” that slave trade would continue; it established when it could start being phased out. It was an exit strategy. If slavery weren’t to be eventually abolished, why set a date for ending the slave trade at all? Isn’t that step in the right direction something to be celebrated, not slandered?
Thank you again for your previous response. Please feel free to post this exchange to the article, as I think it will invite a quality discussion that will contribute to any readers’ thinking on the issue at hand.
My messages were not printed, nor did anyone from Square Two reply to me at all. Perhaps my arguments and evidence were not worthy of their time? I don’t mind starting conversations with liberals, but I wish they would bother themselves to finish more often.