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The Big Lie of the Three-Fifths Compromise

From a display at the Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, FL. Photo by Bob Gatty

In their zeal to end any efforts to teach about systemic racism in America, some Republican state legislators are pulling out all the stops with their gaslighting, with two of them claiming that the “Three-Fifths Compromise” was somehow anti-slavery.

Yeah, that Three-Fifths Compromise. The very same legislative compromise between Northern and Southern state delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that counted just three-fifths of the slave population when determining U.S. House Representation and taxation. In essence, counting every enslaved person as three-fifths a person. The same compromise that counted White people and free Black people as a full person. Yeah, that three-fifths compromise.

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Just when you think Republican lawmakers are finally backing away from their nonsense, gas lighting and alternative history, one or two always show up to outdo the last in ignorance, racism, and false narratives. It never fails.

According to a Washington Post article, Tennessee State Representative Justin Lafferty (R) said Tuesday that “The Three-Fifths Compromise” was a direct effort to ensure that Southern states never got the population to continue the practice of slavery elsewhere in the country. Rafferty went on to add: “By limiting the number of population in the count, they limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery. Well before Lincoln, well before the Civil War. Do we talk about that? I don’t hear that anywhere in this conversation across the country.”

Similarly, Colorado State Representative Ron Hanks, a Republican, said a few weeks ago that “The Three-Fifth Compromise” was an effort by non-slave states to reduce the amount of representation the slave states had, and it was not about “impugning anybody’s humanity.”

I beg to differ. Historical facts won’t be changed by their lies.

Lafferty and Hanks are correct in saying the compromise reduced the population count in the South. That’s where the truth ends. Both lawmakers are lying about the compromise’s purpose, characterizing it as an aim to end slavery and not inherently inhumane to enslaved Blacks.

It was never about ending slavery.

For the South, it was about getting the upper hand in Representation due to the slave population. For the North, the Compromise kept the South from walking away from the Constitutional Convention’s aim of deciding how America would be governed. This is American History 101, yet each lawmaker demonstrates a willful ignorance of history that is stunning in its magnitude and offensiveness,

They haven’t changed since 1787 (why this needs to be said at all is beyond belief). These are just two recent examples of the many attempts to obliterate any effort to teach about America’s history of structural racism. These lawmakers want to peddle a narrative that recasts the intent of the compromise as an effort to end slavery and not dehumanizing enslaved Black people, even though they were not counted as a full human being.

Just so we’re clear. The Three-Fifths Compromise still and always did entail that:

1. White people were counted as full person

2. Free Black people were counted as a full person

3. Enslaved Black people were counted as three-fifths of a person

How did this not impugn the humanity of Back enslaved humans in the South?

You know it does. I know it does. Yet, Lafferty and Hanks insist that it doesn’t.

We can’t be expected to pretend that their whole lie about the Three-Fifths Compromise is just some minor misstep. It’s not. It’s just more of the same flagrant lies and alternative facts that have come to characterize many Republican public officials in recent years. In their haste to bludgeon the truth until it resembles the reality they wish us to see, they’re taking gaslighting to a whole new level.

Haven’t we had enough of it?

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