The Three-Fifths Clause Revisited

The Three-Fifths Clause Revisited

No study questions

No related resources

No mentions of this document


More than one argument over principle was at stake in the debates leading to the Connecticut Compromise. The Gerry Committee Report illuminated the opposing concerns of two parties: those who saw proportional representation in the legislative branch as required by justice, and those whose concern to protect state sovereignty caused them to insist on equal representation for each state. But during the final days of the discussion over representation, the difference between small and large states receded in comparison to the difference between states holding large populations of slaves and those in which the overwhelming majority of laborers were free. This issue had already arisen (see the Revised Virginia Plan).

The North and South Carolina delegates reiterated their concern that wealth be represented, since the purpose of government, they held, was to protect property. Slaves were the specific property they had in mind, and the South Carolina delegates now contended that counting merely three-fifths of the slave population when determining a number of representatives proportional to population would not adequately protect that species of property. Other delegates remarked on the inconsistency in counting three fifths of the slave population for purposes of taxation and the entire population for purposes of apportioning representation. Some wondered why slave property was to be counted, but not other kinds of property. And still other delegates recoiled at the suggestion of counting slaves as “property” at all.

The delegates did seem to move toward consensus on one point: if population were to determine representation, a periodic census would need to be taken. Consideration of this point brought the delegates once again to disputing whether representation should be proportional to population or accorded equally to each state. While Madison insisted on the justice of proportional representation, Roger Sherman of Connecticut argued that equal representation of each state was important not as a principle of justice, but rather to insure the survival of independent state governments.

Despite the differing positions, and the occasionally heated language, the long journey over representation that started in earnest on June 11 would come to an end on July 16. On that date, despite the “no” votes of Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia, delegates approved what (because of the roles played by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut in bringing it about) came to be called the Connecticut Compromise. Five states voted to affirm it; and due to the division of the Massachusetts delegation and the absence of the New York delegation, the compromise passed, allowing the Convention to begin discussing the powers to be granted Congress.

Source: Gordon Lloyd, ed., Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison, a Member (Ashland, Ohio: Ashbrook Center, 2014), 208-23 and 234-235.

July 11

Mr. WILLIAMSON[1]. . . . moved. . .“that in order to ascertain the alterations that may happen in the population and wealth of the several States, a census shall be taken of the free white inhabitants, and three-fifths of those of other descriptions on the first year after this government shall have been adopted, and every — year thereafter; and that the representation be regulated accordingly.”

. . . Mr. BUTLER[2] and General PINCKNEY[3] insisted that blacks be included in the rule of representation equally with the whites; and for that purpose moved that the words “three-fifths” be struck out.

Mr. GERRY[4] thought that three-fifths of them was, to say the least, the full proportion that could be admitted.

Mr. GORHAM.[5] This ratio was fixed by Congress as a rule of taxation. Then it was urged, by the Delegates representing the States having slaves, that the blacks were still more inferior to freemen. At present, when the ratio of representation is to be established, we are assured that they are equal to freemen. The arguments on the former occasion had convinced him that three-fifths was pretty near the just proportion, and he should vote according to the same opinion now.

Mr. BUTLER insisted that the labor of a slave in South Carolina was as productive and valuable as that of a freeman in Massachusetts; that as wealth was the great means of defense and utility to the nation, they were equally valuable to it with freemen; and that consequently an equal representation ought to be allowed for them in a government which was instituted principally, for the protection of property, and was itself to be supported by property. . . .

. . . Mr. WILLIAMSON reminded Mr. GORHAM that if the Southern States contended for the inferiority of blacks to whites when taxation was in view, the Eastern States, on the same occasion, contended for their equality. He did not, however, either then or now, concur in either extreme, but approved of the ratio of three-fifths.

On Mr. BUTLER’S motion, for considering blacks as equal to whites in the apportionment of representation, — Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 3; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 7; New York, not on the floor.

Mr. RUTLEDGE[6] contended for the admission of wealth in the estimate by which representation should be regulated. . . . He moved that, “at the end of — years after the first meeting of the Legislature, and of every — years thereafter, the Legislature shall proportion the representation according to the principles of wealth and population.”

. . . Mr. GORHAM. If the Convention, who are comparatively so little biased by local views, are so much perplexed, how can it be expected that the Legislature hereafter, under the full bias of those views will be able to settle a standard? He was convinced, by the arguments of others and his own reflections, that the Convention ought to fix some standard or other.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. The arguments of others and his own reflections had led him to a very different conclusion. If we cannot agree on a rule that will be just at this time, how can we expect to find one that will be just in all times to come? Surely those who come after us will judge better of things present than we can of things future. . . .

Mr. MADISON . . . . would admit that in no situation numbers of inhabitants were an accurate measure of wealth. He contended, however, that in the United States it was sufficiently so for the object in contemplation. Although their climate varied considerably, yet as the governments, the laws, and the manners of all, were nearly the same, and the intercourse between different parts perfectly free, population, industry, arts, and the value of labor, would constantly tend to equalize themselves. The value of labor might be considered as the principal criterion of wealth and ability to support taxes; and this would find its level in different places, where the intercourse should be easy and free, with as much certainty as the value of money or any other thing. Wherever labor would yield most, people would resort; till the competition should destroy the inequality. Hence it is that the people are constantly swarming from the more to the less, populous places — from Europe to America — from the Northern and middle parts of the United States to the Southern and Western. They go where land is cheaper, because there labor is dearer. . . .

. . . On the question for postponing Mr. WILLIAMSON’S motion, in order to consider that of Mr. RUTLEDGE, it passed in the negative, — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 5; Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 5.[7]

On the question on the first clause of Mr. WILLIAMSON’S motion, as to taking a census of the free inhabitants, it passed in the affirmative, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, aye — 6; Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 4.

The next clause as to three-fifths of the negroes being considered, —

Mr. KING,[8] being much opposed to fixing numbers as the rule of representation, was particularly so on account of the blacks. He thought the admission of them along with whites at all, would excite great discontents among the States having no slaves. He had never said, as to any particular point, that he would in no event acquiesce in and support it; but he would say that if in any case such a declaration was to be made by him, it would be in this. He remarked that in the temporary allotment of representatives made by the Committee, the Southern States had received more than the number of their white and three-fifths of their black inhabitants entitled them to.

. . . Mr. GORHAM . . . . recollected that when the proposition of Congress for changing the eighth Article of the Confederation was before the Legislature of Massachusetts, the only difficulty then was, to satisfy them that the negroes ought not to have been counted equally with the whites, instead of being counted in the ratio of three-fifths only.

Mr. WILSON[9] did not well see, on what principle the admission of blacks in the proportion of three-fifths, could be explained. Are they admitted as citizens — then why are they not admitted on an equality with white citizens? Are they admitted as property — then why is not other property admitted into the computation? These were difficulties, however, which he thought must be overruled by the necessity of compromise. He had some apprehensions also, from the tendency of the blending of the blacks with the whites, to give disgust to the people of Pennsylvania. . . .

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was compelled to declare himself reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States, or to human nature; and he must therefore do it to the former. For he could never agree to give such encouragement to the slave trade, as would be given by allowing them a representation for their negroes; and he did not believe those States would ever confederate on terms that would deprive them of that trade.

On the question for agreeing to include three-fifths of the blacks, — Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, aye — 4; Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, no — 6. . . .

July 12

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to add to the clause empowering the Legislature to vary the representation according to the principles of wealth and numbers of inhabitants, a proviso, “that taxation shall be in proportion to representation.”

Mr. BUTLER contended again, that representation should be according to the full number of inhabitants including all the blacks.

Mr. MASON[10] also admitted the justice of the principle, but was afraid embarrassments might be occasioned to the Legislature by it. . . .

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS admitted that some objections lay against his motion, but supposed they would be removed by restraining the rule to direct taxation. . . .

General PINCKNEY liked the idea. . . . He was alarmed at what was said yesterday, concerning the negroes. . . .

. . . Mr. DAVIE[11] said it was high time now to speak out. He saw that it was meant by some gentlemen to deprive the Southern States of any share of representation for their blacks. He was sure that North Carolina would never confederate on any terms that did not rate them at least as three-fifths. If the Eastern States meant, therefore, to exclude them altogether, the business was at an end.

Doctor JOHNSON[12] thought that wealth and population were the true, equitable rules of representation; but he conceived that these two principles resolved themselves into one, population being the best measure of wealth. . . .

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. It had been said that it is high time to speak out. As one member, he would candidly do so. He came here to form a compact for the good of America. He was ready to do so with all the States. He hoped and believed that all would enter into such a compact. If they would not, he was ready to join with any States that would. But as the compact was to be voluntary, it is in vain for the Eastern States to insist on what the Southern States will never agree to. It is equally vain for the latter to require what the other States can never admit; and he verily believed the people of Pennsylvania will never agree to a representation of negroes. What can be desired by these States more than has been already proposed — that the Legislature shall from time to time regulate representation according to population and wealth?

General PINCKNEY desired that the rule of wealth should be ascertained, and not left to the pleasure of the Legislature; and that property in slaves should not be exposed to danger, under a government instituted for the protection of property.

. . . Mr. ELLSWORTH[13] . . . moved to add to the last clause adopted by the House the words following, “and that the rule of contribution by direct taxation, for the support of the Government of the United States, shall be the number of white inhabitants and three-fifths of every other description in the several States, until some other rule that shall more accurately ascertain the wealth of the several States can be devised and adopted by the Legislature.”

Mr. BUTLER seconded the motion, in order that it might be committed.

Mr. RANDOLPH[14] was not satisfied with the motion. . . . He proposed, in lieu of Mr. ELLSWORTH’s motion, “that in order to ascertain the alterations in representation that may be required, from time to time, by changes in the relative circumstances of the States, a census shall be taken within two years from the first meeting of the General Legislature of the United States, and once within the term of every — years afterwards, of all the inhabitants, in the manner and according to the ratio recommended by Congress in their Resolution of the eighteenth day of April, 1783, (rating the blacks at three-fifths of their number); and that the Legislature of the United States shall arrange the representation accordingly.” He urged strenuously that express security ought to be provided for including slaves in the ratio of representation. He lamented that such a species of property existed. But as it did exist, the holders of it would require this security. It was perceived that the design was entertained by some of excluding slaves altogether; the Legislature therefore ought not to be left at liberty.

Mr. ELLSWORTH withdraws his motion, and seconds that of Mr. RANDOLPH.

Mr. WILSON observed that less umbrage would perhaps be taken against an admission of the slaves into the rule of representation, if it should be so expressed as to make them indirectly only an ingredient in the rule, by saying that they should enter into the rule of taxation; and as representation was to be according to taxation, the end would be equally attained. He accordingly moved, and was seconded, so to alter the last clause adopted by the House, that, together with the amendment proposed, the whole should read as follows: “provided always that the representation ought to be proportioned according to direct taxation; and in order to ascertain the alterations in the direct taxation which may be required from time to time by the changes in the relative circumstances of the States, Resolved, that a census be taken within two years from the first meeting of the legislature of the United States, and once within the term of every — years afterwards, of all the inhabitants of the United States, in the manner and according to the ratio recommended by Congress in their Resolution of the eighteenth day of April, 1783; and that the Legislature of the United States shall proportion the direct taxation accordingly.”[15]

Mr. KING. Although this amendment varies the aspect somewhat, he had still two powerful objections against tying down the Legislature to the rule of numbers, — first, they were at this time an uncertain index of the relative wealth of the States; secondly, if they were a just index at this time, it cannot be supposed always to continue so. He was far from wishing to retain any unjust advantage whatever in one part of the Republic. If justice was not the basis of the connection, it could not be of long duration. He must be short-sighted indeed who does not foresee, that, whenever the Southern States shall be more numerous than the Northern, they can and will hold a language that will awe them into justice. If they threaten to separate now in case injury shall be done them, will their threats be less urgent or effectual when force shall back their demands? Even in the intervening period there will be no point of time at which they will not be able to say, do us justice or we will separate. He urged the necessity of placing confidence, to a certain degree in every government, and did not conceive that the proposed confidence, as to a periodical re-adjustment of the representation, exceeded[16] that degree.

Mr. PINCKNEY[17] moved to amend Mr. RANDOLPH’S motion, so as to make “blacks equal to the whites in the ratio of representation.” This he urged, was nothing more than justice. The blacks are the laborers, the peasants, of the Southern States. They are as productive of pecuniary resources as those of the Northern States. They add equally to the wealth, and, considering money as the sinew of war, to the strength, of the nation. It will also be politic with regard to the Northern States, as taxation is to keep pace with representation.

. . . On Mr. PINCKNEY’S motion, for rating blacks as equal to whites, instead of as three-fifths, — South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 2; Massachusetts, Connecticut, (Doctor JOHNSON, aye), New Jersey, Pennsylvania, (three against two), Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 8. . . .

On the question on the whole proposition, as proportioning representation to direct taxation, and both to the white and three-fifths of the black inhabitants, and requiring a census within six years, and within every ten years afterwards, — Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, aye — 6; New Jersey, Delaware, no — 2; Massachusetts, South Carolina, divided.

July 13

On the motion of Mr. RANDOLPH, the vote of Monday last, authorizing the Legislature to adjust, from time to time, the representation upon the principles of wealth and numbers of inhabitants, was reconsidered by common consent, in order to strike out wealth and adjust the resolution to that requiring periodical revisions according to the number of whites and three-fifths of the blacks.

The motion was in the words following: — “But as the present situation of the States may probably alter in the number of their inhabitants, that the Legislature of the United States be authorized, from time to time, to apportion the number of Representatives; and in case any of the States shall hereafter be divided, or any two or more States united, or new States created within the limits of the United States, the Legislature of the United States shall possess authority to regulate the number of Representatives in any of the foregoing cases, upon the principle of their number of inhabitants, according to the provisions hereafter mentioned.”

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS opposed the alteration, as leaving still an incoherence. If negroes were to be viewed as inhabitants, and the revision was to proceed on the principle of numbers of inhabitants, they ought to be added in their entire number, and not in the proportion of three-fifths. If as property, the word wealth was right; and striking it out would produce the very inconsistency which it was meant to get rid of. The train of business, and the late turn which it had taken, had led him, he said, into deep meditation on it, and he would candidly state the result. A distinction had been set up, and urged, between the Northern and Southern States. He had hitherto considered this doctrine as heretical. He still thought the distinction groundless. He sees, however, that it is persisted in; and the Southern gentlemen will not be satisfied unless they see the way open to their gaining a majority in the public councils. The consequence of such a transfer of power from the maritime to the interior and landed interest, will, he foresees, be such an oppression to commerce, that he shall be obliged to vote for the vicious principle of equality in the second branch, in order to provide some defense for the Northern States against it. But, to come more to the point, either this distinction is fictitious or real; if fictitious, let it be dismissed, and let us proceed with due confidence. If it be real, instead of attempting to blend incompatible things, let us at once take a friendly leave of each other. . . .

Mr. BUTLER. The security the Southern States want is, that their negroes may not be taken from them, which some gentlemen within or without doors have a very good mind to do. . . .

Mr. WILSON. If a general declaration would satisfy any gentleman, he had no indisposition to declare his sentiments. Conceiving that all men, wherever placed, have equal rights, and are equally entitled to confidence, he viewed without apprehension the period when a few States should contain the superior number of people. The majority of people, wherever found, ought in all questions to govern the minority. If the interior country should acquire this majority, it will not only have the right, but will avail itself of it, whether we will or no. . . .

On the question to strike out wealth, and to make the change as moved by Mr. RANDOLPH, it passed in the affirmative, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; Delaware, divided.

Mr. READ[18] moved to insert, after the word “divided,” “or enlarged by addition of territory;” which was agreed to, nem. con.[19]

July 14

Mr. L. MARTIN urged the question on the whole. He did not like many parts of it. He did not like having two branches, nor the inequality of votes in the first branch. He was willing, however, to make trial of the plan, rather than do nothing.

Mr. WILSON traced the progress of the report through its several stages; remarking, that when, on the question concerning an equality of votes the House was divided, our constituents, had they voted as their Representatives did, would have stood as two thirds against the equality, and one third only in favor of it. This fact would ere long be known, and it would appear that this fundamental point has been carried by one third against two thirds. What hopes will our constituents entertain, when they find that the essential principles of justice have been violated in the outset of the Government? . . . The equality of votes was a point of such critical importance, that every opportunity ought to be allowed for discussing and collecting the mind of the Convention upon it.

Mr. L. MARTIN denies that there were two-thirds against the equality of votes. The States that please to call themselves large are the weakest in the Union. Look at Massachusetts — look at Virginia — are they efficient States? He was for letting a separation take place, if they desired it. He had rather there should be two confederacies, than one founded on any other principle than an equality of votes in the second branch at least.

Mr. WILSON was not surprised that those who say that a minority does more than a majority, should say the minority is stronger than the majority. He supposed the next assertion will be, that they are richer also; though he hardly expected it would be persisted in, when the States shall be called on for taxes and troops.

Mr. GERRY . . . . The Report was not altogether to his mind; but he would agree to it as it stood, rather than throw it out altogether.

The reconsideration being tacitly agreed to, —

Mr. PINCKNEY moved, that, instead of an equality of votes, the States should be represented in the second branch as follows: New Hampshire by two members; Massachusetts, four; Rhode Island, one; Connecticut, three; New York, three; New Jersey, two; Pennsylvania, four; Delaware, one; Maryland, three; Virginia, five; North Carolina, three; South Carolina, three; Georgia, two; making in the whole, thirty-six.

Mr. WILSON seconds the motion.

Mr. DAYTON.[20] The smaller States can never give up their equality. For himself, he would in no event yield that security for their rights.

Mr. SHERMAN[21] urged the equality of votes, not so much as a security for the small States, as for the State Governments, which could not be preserved unless they were represented, and had a negative in the General Government. He had no objection to the members in the second branch voting per capita,[22] as had been suggested by (Mr. GERRY).

Mr. MADISON concurred in this motion of Mr. PINCKNEY, as a reasonable compromise.

Mr. GERRY said, he should like the motion, but could see no hope of success. An accommodation must take place, and it was apparent from what had been seen, that it could not do so on the ground of the motion. He was utterly against a partial confederacy, leaving other States to accede or not accede, as had been intimated.

Mr. KING said, it was always with regret that he differed from his colleagues, but it was his duty to differ from (Mr. GERRY) on this occasion. He considered the proposed Government as substantially and formally a General and National Government over the people of America. There never will be a case in which it will act as a Federal Government, on the States and not on the individual citizens. And is it not a clear principle, that in a free government, those who are to be the objects of a government, ought to influence the operations of it? What reason can be assigned, why the same rule of representation should not prevail in the second, as in the first, branch? He could conceive none. On the contrary, every view of the subject that presented itself seemed to require it. . . .

It was his firm belief that Massachusetts would never be prevailed on to yield to an equality of votes. In New York, (he was sorry to be obliged to say any thing relative to that State in the absence of its representatives, but the occasion required it), in New York he had seen that the most powerful argument used by the considerate opponents to the grant of the Impost to Congress was pointed against the vicious constitution of Congress with regard to representation and suffrage. He was sure that no government would last that was not founded on just principles. He preferred the doing of nothing, to an allowance of an equal vote to all the States. It would be better, he thought, to submit to a little more confusion and convulsion, than to submit to such an evil. It was difficult to say what the views of different gentlemen might be. Perhaps there might be some who thought no Government co-extensive with the United States could be established with a hope of its answering the purpose. Perhaps there might be other fixed opinions incompatible with the object we are pursuing. If there were, he thought it but candid, that gentlemen should speak out, that we might understand one another.

Mr. STRONG.[23] The Convention had been much divided in opinion. In order to avoid the consequences of it, an accommodation had been proposed. A committee had been appointed; and though some of the members of it were averse to an equality of votes, a report had been made in favor of it. It is agreed, on all hands, that Congress are nearly at an end. If no accommodation takes place, the Union itself must soon be dissolved. It has been suggested that if we cannot come to any general agreement, the principal States may form and recommend a scheme of government. But will the small States, in that case, ever accede to it? Is it probable that the large States themselves will, under such circumstances, embrace and ratify it? He thought the Small states had made a considerable concession, in the article of money bills,[24] and that they might naturally expect some concessions on the other side. From this view of the matter, he was compelled to give his vote for the Report taken altogether.

Mr. MADISON expressed his apprehensions that if the proper foundation of government was destroyed, by substituting an equality in place of a proportional representation, no proper superstructure would be raised. . . .

But it had been said that the Government would, in its operation, be partly federal, partly national; that although in the latter respect the representatives of the people ought to be in proportion to the people, yet in the former, it ought to be according to the number of States. If there was any solidity in this distinction, he was ready to abide by it; if there was none, it ought to be abandoned. . . . He denied that there was any ground. . . .

. . . On the question for agreeing to Mr. PINCKNEY’S motion, for allowing New Hampshire two; Massachusetts, four, &c. it passed in the negative, — Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, aye — 4; Massachusetts, (Mr. KING, aye, Mr. GORHAM absent), Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.

July 16

In Convention, — On the question for agreeing to the whole Report, as amended, and including the equality of votes in the second branch, it passed in the affirmative, — Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina (Mr. SPAIGHT no) aye — 5; Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 4; Massachusetts, divided (Mr. GERRY, Mr. STRONG, aye; Mr. KING, Mr. GORHAM, no). . . .

  1. 1. [24]