A Compact for the Good of America? Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise, Part II

Celebration of The Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia by the Colored People, in Washington, April 19, 1866, from the Harper’s Weekly Collection (Schomburg Center Photographs and Prints Division)

This is the second part of a two-part survey on the Electoral College, race, and slavery. This post explores the impact of the Electoral College from the election of Thomas Jefferson to the Civil War. All hypothetical scenarios are Dr. Rael’s derivations based on data from the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research and the work of John P. McIver in Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present.


The sectional divide written into the Constitution became particularly embittered as it became apparent that newly acquired lands threatened to vastly enhance the political power of the slaveholding states in the federal government. Northerners—particularly New England Federalists—smelled in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 a plot to expand the power of the slaves states and dominate the national government. Boston Federalist George Cabot argued that with the “federal ratio” (three-fifths clause) operating in new states carved out of Louisiana, “it is so obvious that the influence of our part of the Union must be diminished.”

With the promise of new slave states entering the union, many northern politicians began doubting the wisdom of the compromise. Some considered it “an original and radical defect in the form of government,” while others feared that their forbears had unwittingly “made a covenant with death” in agreeing to the measure.

The most ardent opponents of the slave power sought to deny using the federal ratio in newly admitted states. William Ely, a western Massachusetts Federalist, engineered a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment abolishing the three-fifths clause, on the grounds that the union could not persist “unless it be founded in principles which shall secure to all Free Citizens, equal political rights and privileges in the government.”  The measure found no traction in Congress, but the point had been made: the fate of the union depended on sectional harmony.

Ardent Federalists pushed their principle to self-destructive extremes in 1814 during the Hartford Convention, when they openly discussed seceding from the union and forming a “northern confederation.” The call for northern secession amounted to political self-immolation for the party, demonstrating the political costs of provoking slaveholders’ ire.

Yet Federalist opponents of southern power did succeed in establishing a critique of the three-fifths clause that would persist to the Civil War. Federalists such as Sereno Edwards Dwight, son of Yale President Timothy Dwight, issued screeds denouncing the “slave representation” permitted by the clause as a “rotten part of the Constitution,” which “must be amputated” (figure 2).  These ideological innovations proved critical to abolition’s long game, which was to induce a recalcitrant political system to respond to the slavery issue.

Figure 2: Free people/electoral vote. As the northern population grew relative to the southern, each individual vote in the South came to wield a larger share of an electoral vote than did each individual vote in the North. Between the 1st Congress and the 36th, each individual southern vote grew from being slightly more powerful than each individual northern vote to being nearly twice as powerful. This fueled the North’s charges of a “slave power” conspiracy that concentrated political power in the hands of a few.
Figure 2: Free people/electoral vote. As the northern population grew relative to the southern, each individual vote in the South came to wield a larger share of an electoral vote than did each individual vote in the North. Between the 1st Congress and the 36th, each individual southern vote grew from being slightly more powerful than each individual northern vote to being nearly twice as powerful. This fueled the North’s charges of a “slave power” conspiracy that concentrated political power in the hands of a few.

This was difficult, though, for despite the North’s considerably larger population, the three-fifths clause cut severely into its advantage. In the first Congress, the apportionment for which was established by estimates of population in the Constitution, southern states controlled thirty seats, or 46 percent of the House of Representatives. By virtue of the federal ratio, this figure exceeded by twelve what without the clause would have been a mere eighteen seats. In the second Congress, which was apportioned according to the 1790 census, the three-fifths clause secured the southern states fourteen seats they otherwise would not have filled. Under a regime of apportioning seats strictly by free population, the North would have enjoyed a 19.0 percent advantage in the House; with the three-fifths clause, this lead was reduced to 8.6 percent.

These differences mattered, for important pieces of federal legislation were passed by margins provided by the three-fifths clause. Scholars have established that it changed the results of over 55 percent of the legislative roll-call votes in the Sixth Congress (1799-1801). Southern over-representation was responsible for critical measures that aided the South, such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which cleared native-occupied lands for settlement and plantation agriculture. The clause skewed the balance in the Electoral College with similar consequence. In the critical election of 1800, Jefferson’s margin of victory owed to the five additional electoral votes Virginia commanded by virtue of the clause.

The hyper-representation of the slave states also conferred a range of unpredictable and unforeseen benefits to the South, which rippled through the halls of power at every level. To secure the alliances necessary to achieve southern support in the House, party leaders disproportionately favored southerners in the distribution of federal patronage and judicial appointments. The early party caucus system also gave unintended weight to southern concerns. With Jefferson’s ascendant Republican Party rooted in the South, and a much-weaker Federalist Party siphoning off northern votes, northern Republicans found themselves dominated in caucus after caucus, despite representing far more constituents than did their southern party brethren.

Southern politicians understood, and reveled in, these realities, which the westward march of slavery promised only to enhance. George Mason of Virginia predicted that only a “few years” would pass before “the southern and western population should predominate,” thus placing national power “in the hands of the minority.” Even before the constitutional convention, Madison had hoped that southern states would accept the pact due to the “expected superiority” in population that they would enjoy in the near future.

It would not last, however.  The arrival of many new European immigrants to labor in expanding northern industries promised that population growth in the North would eventually overcome even the artificial advantage of the three-fifths clause (figure 3).  National politics broke down over issues ranging from federal tariffs to the rights of fugitive slaves, but none would have mattered had it not been evident to all that the South simply could not sustain itself against population growth in the free states.  Southern secession owed much to this accurate perception that its artificial, fragile hold over national power could not hold.

Figure 3: U.S. population by region, with slaves. Demographic trends favoring European immigration to the free states spelled pending disaster for the slaveholding states.
Figure 3: U.S. population by region, with slaves. Demographic trends favoring European immigration to the free states spelled pending disaster for the slaveholding states.

Southern Congressmen spoke directly to the question of declining southern representation during the crisis of secession.  Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas was convinced that “the non-slaveholding States either had now, or soon would have, if this Union were preserved, the entire control of both Houses of Congress, and the Electoral College, and would therefore have the disposition of all the public patronage of the country.”  Louisiana’s John Landrum went so far as to complain that the original three-fifths clause had been insufficiently generous:  “If we had a representation on this floor, as we ought to have, on a total population basis, we should have sixteen additional members, and the same additional number in the electoral college.”

Ten southern states seceded because of Wigfall’s fear.  They believed that the election of the Republican Lincoln signaled their loss of control over the federal government.  In his second inaugural address of February 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis noted this imminence in recalling the origins of secession: “To save ourselves from a revolution which, in its silent but rapid progress, was about to place us under the despotism of numbers, . . . we determined to make a new association, composed of States homogenous in interest, in policy, and in feeling.”  Lincoln decided that union was a prize worth fighting for, and the story goes from there.

All this helps us appreciate two things.

First, it speaks to the uniquely bloody nature of final emancipation in the United States.  Great Britain, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands all ended slavery in their colonial empires with the strokes of imperial pens.  In the U.S., though, slavery could only end through the workings of a political process utterly disinclined to cope with it.  That meant that politics could not serve their most fundamental purpose, which is to resolve disputes without resorting to violence.  That’s why we had a civil war over slavery that others didn’t.

Second, it demonstrates that the Electoral College has always served as a critical meter of national power.  We often revere the Constitution as a product of inspired genius, but the system of government begun in 1787 was a hasty, ad hoc contraption of compromises from the start; it could be more aptly described as Montgomery Burns once described Homer Simpson’s brain—as a “clinking, clattering cacophany of calligenous cogs and camshafts.”  The union never has been perfect, only perfectable.  It’s instructive to remember how far we’ve come from days when the land of liberty protected the right of property in man.  And it’s helpful to recall how difficult and costly it has been to more fully enact an expansive vision of liberty.

Change never comes easily, but it does come—when we have the strength, like the abolitionists did, to confront a system designed to thwart them, controlled by their opponents.  Let’s hope that we can use the past as a caution when confronting the constitutional crises of our own day.


Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of numerous essays and books, including Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), and his most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “A Compact for the Good of America? Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise, Part II

  • Thank you, Patrick!

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