During the late 1700s, when slavery was in its prime in the United States, voters in the South wanted to find a way to use slaves to their advantage in order to be able to compete with larger states with higher populations in the North. Because of this, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a proposal was put forth by Southern delegates to conclude the conversation on how slaves would be accounted for. This led to the Three-Fifths Compromise, and it was one of the most controversial decisions to have been made in American history to date.
The Three-Fifths Compromise is defined as an agreement that slaves in the Southern states of the U.S. would be counted as three-fifths of a white person when it came to recording the population of these states. By doing this, Southern states could have more seats in the House of Representatives as well as influence their tax contributions.
The Three-Fifths Compromise Definition
The issue of slavery had divided the United States for many years, and therefore, the Founders had to do whatever they could to reduce the tension between slave states and free states. When it came to voting powers, the Southern slave states wanted to increase their presence in the House of Representatives. Because a state is assigned representatives based on the population of that state, Southern delegates wanted slaves to be included in the census, while free states felt strongly that only free people, not slaves, could be counted toward the population.
Though the idea was originally proposed by delegates Roger Sherman and James Wilson during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many historians believe it was James Madison who put the Three-Fifths Compromise into play, primarily to make it "fair." The Three-Fifths Compromise suggested that every slave would count as three-fifths a person in terms of population. This Three-Fifths Clause also made a difference when it came to the tax contribution requirements of each individual state in the South.
Why It's Controversial
The Three-Fifths Compromise was controversial for a number of reasons, and it doesn't take a historian to see why. First and foremost, the Three-Fifths Clause determined that slaves were not people, that they were property. By assigning their worth as a fraction of that of a white person, it signified that they were not equal to the rest of the population.
Another reason why the Three-Fifths Compromise is frowned upon by historians is that the Southern states, who were notorious for not believing in the rights of slaves, suddenly wanted to use these slaves to their advantage. Of course, with the Southern states having more seats in the House of Representatives, they would ultimately increase their leverage when it came to electing the next presidential candidate. And, seeing as they wanted to hold onto their rights to be slave owners, a potential increase in political power would mean they would have a window of opportunity to pursue this agenda. Likewise, the northern states, in turn, would naturally not agree with this, because they wanted to maintain their own power in government, thereby denouncing the fact that slaves should have any role in the population at all.
The Result of the Three-Fifths Compromise
Though the Southern states believed the Three-Fifths Compromise would work in their favor, that's not quite how it turned out. Because the population in the northern states continued to increase ahead of the population in the south (despite the fact slaves were included in some way), the North ultimately had the most influence in government. Perhaps if a slave had counted as one whole person, the South would have had more power, thus keeping slavery around a lot longer.
Though there were many years from the time the Three-Fifths Compromise was implemented until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, it seems that in some ways, the compromise backfired on the South. Despite the fact it could have certainly happened sooner, it was only a matter of time before slavery was abolished in the United States, anyway. That being said, there's absolutely no doubt that the Three-Fifths Compromise was a horrible violation of human rights.