The Importance of Getting History Right, Part 4

The Pervasive Myth of Maniacal Racism Among America’s Founders

If I assume the “truth” to be negotiable based on whether or not it serves my agenda, then my agenda has become my “truth.” And the “truth” of the matter is, when I do this I’ve chosen to take a treacherous path through some very deep woods where neither path nor woods exist.
Craig D. Lounsbrough

History as well as life itself is complicated—neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.
Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Part 3 is available here.

In early 2013, Dr. James Wagner, president of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote an article in the university’s magazine about compromise. In it, he cited the Three-Fifths Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as a positive example.

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

A furor erupted. At minimum, President Wagner, unwisely, had praised the Three-Fifths Compromise without sufficiently clarifying or qualifying his statements (even though he offered a more thorough explanation of the background of the compromise than usually is given). Wagner also made a mistake when he used the phrase “to form a more perfect union” as he discussed the decision that gave Southern slave states more political clout than the North initially said they should have. This left a negative impression as well. All of this notwithstanding, history records that the Three-Fifths Compromise was indeed a compromise. Because of it, Southern states’ influence in the House of Representatives was less than their delegates originally wanted.

President Wagner apologized. An update posted Sunday, February 24, 2013 on Emory Magazine’s website carried his statement:

A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine.  Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.

On February 23—the day prior—Emory history professor Leslie Harris appeared on NPR News, Weekend Edition, to discuss the issue. Dr. Harris’ full title is associate professor of history and African American Studies. President Wagner already had apologized at this point, but the controversy still was raging. Don Gonyea, the host, interviewed Harris. When he asked Dr. Harris about her reaction when she initially read the president’s article, Harris said,

My first response was that it was a misreading of the three-fifths compromise and of what a successful compromise could be. In addition to the sort of strict historical interpretation of that compromise, the way that popular culture, and particularly African-Americans- see that compromise is that it is a way of counting African-Americans as three-fifths of a person, three-fifths of a human being. So, I knew that even if the historical interpretation of popular culture was wrong, it would strike a very bad chord among African-Americans and among others. I mean, I want to emphasize that this is something that is not an idea that’s simply bound by race. But I knew that in terms of African-Americans, it would be particularly striking that he use that as an example of compromise.

With all due respect to Dr. Harris, she did very little in the interview to help people understand what the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the Three-Fifths Clause, actually did. Here is a history professor who was given a ripe opportunity to open people’s eyes about a widely misunderstood historical matter, yet she bypassed that favorable moment to reinforce perspectives formed largely by emotional impressions shaped in a 21st-century American culture. “Clear thinking,” writes A. J. Hoover, “involves many things, but one of the most important things it involves is learning to control your emotions.”1

This is not to say that President Wagner’s article warranted no criticism. Even so, Dr. Harris could have offered appropriate, constructive criticism while also explaining some of the realities of the world of 1787 and some of the tough challenges confronting the new nation.

I suspect Dr. Harris responded as she did because, apparently, she sees the Three-Fifths Compromise as increasing the South’s power to officially strengthen and maintain slavery. A few moments earlier in the interview, Dr. Harris had said, “[B]y keeping slavery in the Constitution, by protecting slavery through the three-fifths compromise, in fact, we held onto slavery, which ultimately led us into civil war with the bloodiest loss of life.”

This ignores several important and undeniable realities.

  • First, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had not gathered in Philadelphia to deal with the issue of slavery, but to create a document that would serve as a foundation for the new nation’s government.
  • Second, if delegates from the North had told their Southern counterparts, “We will eliminate slavery in the new nation, and on this issue we will not compromise,” Southern states would have formed their own country with a government that fully sanctioned the practice.
  • Third, it would have been to the slaves’ advantage not to be counted in the census at all (as the North wanted), and to their disadvantage to be fully counted (as the South wanted). Why? Because the larger the population count in a state, the more representatives that state would have in the House of Representatives. Southern delegates were all too eager to fully count slaves, who would not be allowed to vote, to boost the pro-slavery forces in the House.
  • Finally, the Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise; neither the North nor the South got all it wanted. Specifically, from the perspective of Southern state delegates, the South got fewer representatives than it would have had slaves been numbered one for one. Remember that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), an African-American whom we studied last week, was born into slavery. He experienced it firsthand. He escaped from bondage and eventually became a national leader and statesman. He also became a staunch defender of the US Constitution. Douglass said of the Three-Fifths Clause, “It is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation. A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States…[Thus,] taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”


It therefore is misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst, to point—directly or indirectly—to the Three-Fifths Compromise as evidence the Framers saw individual slaves or blacks as less than a complete human being. This misconception, even in 2016, is having a devastating effect. As we said in our initial post in this series, “A great deal is at stake here. The belief that the Framers…wanted slavery to continue forever understandably will make it harder for blacks to trust governmental authorities, including police. Yet, if we dig deeper and come to understand many of the relevant historical details, we just might discover truths that can help ease some of today’s racial tensions and conflicts.”

It is misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst, to point—directly or indirectly—to the Three-Fifths Compromise as evidence the Framers saw individual slaves or blacks as less than a complete human being.

Unfortunately, not only does the myth of rabid racism on the part of the Founders persist; it’s also extremely pervasive—especially in the black community. Furthermore, it’s constantly reinforced. For proof, all one needs to do is to conduct an Internet search using the phrase “Black Lives Matter Three-Fifths.” Here is a sampling of the results of such a search, from most recent to earliest. Emphases, reflected in bold face type, have been added.

Warren J. Blumenfeld at The Huffington Post, August 6, 2016

The “founding fathers” of the United States…wrote into the U.S. Constitution the so-called “three-fifths clause” counting enslaved Africans as equivalent to three-fifths of a full human being for census purposes. As we can see, then, black lives certainly did not matter.

S. Davis in an article titled “Black Lives Matter” August 4, 2016

In addition to blacks being owned in this land of the free they had the glory of being counted as three-fifths of a person in the U.S. Constitution of 1787 (Article I, section 2). Over time the clause has been misinterpreted to mean that blacks were counted as three-fifths of a person or three-fifths of a complete citizen of the country—although I clearly see why anyone could make that argument. I won’t even dispute them. The clause was written to count enslaved blacks as three-fifths of their white counterparts for direct representation in Congress. Even with the correct explanation of the clause a simple question of, “Why aren’t all lives equal on a one-to-one basis?” can easily be posed. This is another instance of black lives being devalued.

John Fountain at the Chicago Sun Times, July 22, 2016

All lives matter!

But here in America, “black” life historically has meant less than “white” life—from slavery, to once being deemed by the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths of a person, to Jim Crow. And now, amid the illusion of a post-racial America, comes the declaration: “Black lives matter!”

Kevin Ressler at Lancaster Online, July 19, 2016

In 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers of this nation declared that “all men are created equal.”

And they did mean only men because women were seen as property and the Constitution made clear that blacks and other nonwhite persons were valued at three-fifths of a man.

Nat Chioke Williams at Funders for Justice, 2015

One of the most blatant and significant political enshrinements of Black lives mattering less than White lives is found in  Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “three-fifths compromise” that defined the value or worth of those in bondage (largely enslaved Blacks) as only three fifths of free people (almost entirely White).

Paul Street at, June 12, 2015

…another unpleasant historical parallel is with the U.S. Constitution’s notorious Three-Fifths Clause (whereby three-fifths of the South’s slaves population counted towards the congressional representation of the Slave states).

James A. Wynn, Jr. at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 4, 2015

Although the word “slave” appeared nowhere in the document, the original Constitution nevertheless accommodated slavery. Indeed, the Constitution based representation in the House of Representatives on the population of “free Persons” and three-fifths “of all other Persons” in each state. In other words, despite the Declaration of Independence’s majestic pronouncement that “all men are created equal,” the original Constitution took a very different view. The 13th Amendment righted that wrong and made clear that black lives do matter, and matter equally.

Todd S. Purdum at Politico, September/October 2015

Civil rights has arguably been the American story, in a country where the Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal,” yet the original Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person and denied women the vote. “It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America,” the late writer Molly Ivins once put it.

Patrisse Cullors at The Washington Post, August 18, 2015

Our relationship to this country as Black folks has been playing the role of currency, property and resource. The three-fifths compromise during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention was a political debate focused squarely on determining the worth of our humanity for the purposes of taxation and congressional representation. The intrinsic belief that we were property was not up for discussion, rather [what was was (sic) up for discussion was] how much we as property were worth to White men. Our worth has always been in question in this country.  No presidential candidate has ever centered their agenda around the worth of Black lives. We are committed to redefining our worth as Black people and holding our country’s representatives accountable.

Julianne Malvenus, NNPA Columnist, at the Westside Gazette, July 30, 2015

Asserting that Black Lives Matter is to rebut the inherent supposition that Black lives do not matter. Black lives have been devalued since the development of our Constitution when it counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person. To proclaim that Black Lives Matter is to rebut this constitutional flaw. We still live with the legacy of enslavement, when Black folks were other people’s property. Black folks aren’t property now (unless they are the much-exploited convict laborers), but unequal treatment is not just historical—it still happens. That’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.

Posted by David Love at Atlanta Blackstar, July 22, 2015

The Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal” at a time when Africans were held in bondage.  In that seminal document, “all lives mattered” in theory, or at least on paper, but Black lives really did not matter. In practice, the American experiment has been built on the affirmation of white lives, bolstered by the legal system and reinforced in every corner of society, at the expense of Black lives.  The Constitution made us three-fifths of a person, a part of the badge of slavery that rendered us a criminal element in the eyes of white America, by heredity and in perpetuity.

And Black people find themselves in the same predicament today, viewed as less than human.  Due to white supremacy, we are paid less and die younger, and not unlike the days of slavery and Jim Crow, navigate through life under the constant threat of death.  #BlackLivesMatter is a struggle against the violence Black people face, but it also is an attempt to place the Black narrative on the front burner.

Gary Younge at The Guardian, June 1, 2015

As long as there have been black people in America, the issue of how much black lives matter, and why, has always been contested. Under slavery, you could literally count the value of black life in dollars and cents, while black black [sic] slaves were constitutionally quantified as three fifths of a person. Abolition got rid of the institution but did little to change the rationale that underpinned it.

Professor Everett Hoagland, quoted by Michael Gange at The Herald News, February 26, 2015

Those who participated [in the Black Lives Matter rally] also read the names of people who, according to [rally organizer Benjamin] Evans, died at the hands of police since 1975.

As they recited those names, [Everett] Hoagland [professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and New Bedford’s poet laureate emeritus,] added a name that wasn’t on the list: Morris Pina, a New Bedford man who died in a city police cell in 1990. Pina’s family eventually won a wrongful death suit against the New Bedford Police Department after a multi-year fight, Hoagland said.

“It starts systematically in this country way back in the 1780s, with the Constitution, when in the country African-Americans were considered three-fifths of a human being. Their lives don’t matter as fully as privileged white lives,” Hoagland said.

Khalil Coleman, founder and executive director of the Milwaukee-based Changing Lives Through Literature, and history professor Robert Smith University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, at a Black Lives Matter forum on January 30, 2015, as reported by Media Trackers on February 4, 2015


…[T]he reason why black lives don’t matter in America is because still to this day in the United States Constitution there is a three-fifths clause that says that if you are a black life still to this day in 2015 you are still considered to be three-fifths a person by the United States Constitution.

Smith, a history professor, does not correct Coleman’s error about the three-fifths clause’s still being in effect, nor does he provide any information about the historical context of the clause:

And that in fact what makes us particularly unique as a nation is that we have the capability we have the voices and we have the means and we have the constitutional protection to, to stand up and resist and exercise your right and as brother Khalil mentioned the constitution does include the three-fifths clause…

Robert Parry at, January 26, 2013

The Three-Fifths Compromise was included in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution counting African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress. The infamous provision was rescinded by constitutional amendments that ended slavery after the Civil War, ironically pushed by the Republican Party.

Jesse Jackson, Jr., as a US congressman, on the floor of the US House of Representatives, speaking about the reading of the Constitution in the House and objecting to the exclusion of portions that had been superseded by amendments, including the Three-Fifths Clause, in a video uploaded January 6, 2011

To be fair, we should point out that in several of the examples cited above, the writer or speaker acknowledges that the Three-Fifths Clause dealt with representation and taxation. While accurate, this information alone does not give readers and listeners all the information they need to understand that the clause was in no way about individual worth or that not counting slaves at all would have been even more advantageous to them than counting them as the clause directed.

These examples surely represent the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps these writers, speakers, and leaders are taking their cue from Jesse Jackson, Sr., president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. In 2015 Jackson wrote,

When the Founders wrote the Constitution, Blacks were considered three-fifths human. In a compromise at the constitutional convention, the Constitution was written to allow slave states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census and for elections. Slaves couldn’t vote, but they could increase the population and thus the representation of slave states.

The sentence we’ve emphasized in the quote from Rev. Jackson is more than misleading. It is blatantly false, because race wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution at all.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is another possible source for some of the writers and speakers cited above. Even if he isn’t a source, the theme of racism among the Founders is common ground. Before watching this YouTube video of Farrakhan, be forewarned that it contains inappropriate language. Viewer/listener discretion is advised.

The question arises, Why would black leaders, journalists, educators, and others want to perpetuate the myth that the Three-Fifths Clause proves the Founders saw slaves or blacks as less than human? While some who spread this idea may be ignorant of the truth, surely not everyone is. History professors and black leaders, in particular, have no excuses. What are they thinking? We’ll examine this question to some extent next week, but for now, recall with me these words from Walter Williams, a conservative African-American journalist and columnist. We quoted Williams at the end of part 3 of this series. He observed,

Ignorance of our history, coupled with an inability to think critically, has provided considerable ammunition for those who want to divide us in pursuit of their agenda. Their agenda is to undermine the legitimacy of our Constitution in order to gain greater control over our lives. Their main targets are the nation’s youths. The teaching establishment, at our public schools and colleges, is being used to undermine American values.

Remember, there is a great deal at stake when we seek to interpret these historical events. It’s vital that we get them right!


Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Part 5 is available here.


1A. J. Hoover, Don’t You Believe It! Poking Holes in Faulty Logic, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 67.

Top image credit: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, created in 1900


2 thoughts on “

The Importance of Getting History Right, Part 4

  1. You site my story ( to push your own agenda, it seems, when I clearly stated it’s original purpose for representation in Congress. I’m fully aware of what the compromise means and its purpose. However, i’m also clear on why I stand by every word I typed. Politically or not, no matter your position on the issue it expresses a carefree attitude towards African-Americans.

    Even if the politicians from the slave states meant well with their actions and the compromise was reached in a good faith negotiation to keep the fracturing Union intact, we are still talking about a time where people – who happen to have tanned skin – were listed as property. They were bartered at auction, separated from their families, and abused and killed at their owners’ discretion.

    You mean to tell me that those wielding power in those same slave states were simultaneously owning slaves – and looking out for their best interests? Sure.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I mean no disrespect to you or to anyone else whose work I have cited. Moreover, my only agenda is to get at the truth—–and the truth about the Three-Fifths Compromise is not extremely simple. It is multi-layered. It requires some explanation—more than simply saying that the numbering was for purposes of determining the number of representatives in the House of Representatives and for taxation (although this is an excellent start).

      Far too few, especially in the black community, will explain that the pro-slavery position was to fully count slaves, and that the anti-slavery position was to not number them at all. Far too few explain nuances like this one. And too few explain that the Constitution itself does not ever refer to slaves as property, or as Negroes, or as blacks, but as persons—even in the Three-Fifths Clause. All of these things are significant, and to treat them as if they were insignificant is to misrepresent history as well as the importance of the Constitution.

      Responding to your last paragraph, I just want to make my position absolutely clear—slavery in America was inhuman and barbaric, as it is everywhere. Without any question or debate, it was terribly wrong that slaves were treated as property, abused, overworked, separated from their families, treated inhumanely in other ways, and sometimes killed. Southern delegates espoused an untenable position on slavery, and I never have, nor would I ever, defend it. In part 4 I said, “Southern delegates were all too eager to fully count slaves, who would not be allowed to vote, to boost the pro-slavery forces in the House.”

      Again, thank you for your comments.

      B. Nathaniel Sullivan

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