One of the thornier issues facing the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, which began this week (May 25) in 1787, was how to apportion representation in the House of Representatives. Previously it had been agreed that the Senate would have equal representation, regardless of a state’s population, but in the House, representation was to be based on the number of people residing in the state.
Sort of. It depended on how you defined “people” because, in an astonishing reversal of their long-held position that slaves were merely property, southern delegates to the convention suddenly insisted that slaves were people — just like you or me — and should count the same as whites in determining a state’s population, and therefore the number of representatives it sent to Congress.
Not surprisingly, delegates from the northern free states quickly reversed their long-held position that slaves were human beings. They argued that if slaves, which had always been considered property, were suddenly to become people, then why couldn’t horses and cows, which also were property, also be counted for the purposes of determining congressional representation?
To see these two positions, so passionately held in the past, so suddenly reversed and even exchanged in 1787 would have been comical had the issue not been so grave and the stakes so high. The southern slave states were keenly aware that the North’s white population far exceeded theirs, and should only whites be considered for representation purposes, the North would dominate the House of Representatives, which at that time was considered the more important congressional body. Principle was one thing. Self interest and the power needed to protect it were something else entirely.
Thus, after much debate, a compromise was proposed. The convention decided to count slaves as “three-fifths of a person” in apportioning congressional representation. So that is what was put in the Constitution (the language remains there to this day), although for posterity’s sake, and sensitive to the northern delegates’ desire to keep the word “slave” out of the Constitution entirely, the phrase “other Persons” was used to describe these “three-fifths” humans.
Which was about the only good the North got out of this compromise, because the “three-fifths clause” gave the South enough added representation and power in Congress to dominate the national political scene for years.
Indeed, historian William Lee Miller notes that for the next 72 years—from 1789 until the Civil War—23 of the 36 speakers of the House were from the South, as were 20 of the 35 Supreme Court justices. What’s more, because congressional apportionment also determines a state’s electoral votes, for 49 of those 72 years the president of the United States was a southerner—and a slaveholder.