Often misinterpreted to mean that African Americans as individuals are considered three-fifths of a person or that they are three-fifths of a citizen of the U.S., the three-fifths clause (Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution of 1787) in fact declared that for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state.
The three-fifths clause was part of a series of compromises enacted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The most notable other clauses prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territories and ended U.S. participation in the international slave trade in 1807. These compromises reflected Virginia Constitutional Convention delegate (and future U.S. President) James Madison’s observation that “…the States were divided into different interests not by their…size…but principally from their having or not having slaves.”
When Constitutional Convention delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed that congressional representation be based on the total number of inhabitants of a state, delegate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina agreed saying “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites….” Pinckney’s statement was disingenuous since at the time he knew most blacks were enslaved in his state and none, slave or free, could vote or were considered equals of white South Carolinians. Other delegates including most notably Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania argued that he could not support equal representation because he “could never agree to give such encouragement to the slave trade…by allowing them [Southern states] a representation for their negroes.”
With the convention seemingly at an impasse Charles Pinckney proposed a compromise: “Three-fifths of the number of slaves in any particular state would be added to the total number of free white persons, including bond servants, but not Indians, to the estimated number of congressmen each state would send to the House of Representatives.” The Pinckney compromise was not completely original. This ratio had already been established by the Congress which adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1781 as the basis for national taxation.
Although the three-fifths compromise and others regarding slavery helped hold this new fragile union of states together, many on both sides of the issue were opposed. James Madison and Edmund Randolph of Virginia used the phrase “Quotas of contribution” to argue that slaves should be fully counted, one for one, and opposed the compromise.
Northern opponents correctly pointed out that slaveholding states had more representatives than if only the free white population was counted. By 1793, slaveholding states had 47 congressmen but would have had only 33 if not for the compromise. During the entire period before the Civil War slaveholding states had disproportionate influence on the Presidency, the Speakership of the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Supreme Court because of the compromise. By the 1830s abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts used the clause in their argument that the Federal government was dominated by slaveholders.
The three-fifths clause remained in force until the post-Civil War 13th Amendment freed all enslaved people in the United States, the 14th amendment gave them full citizenship, and the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote.