Goals of this exercise

  • Examine the instrumental reasoning behind the Three-Fifths Compromise during the Constitutional Convention.
  • Illustrate the “southern advantage” in representation that resulted from the 3/5 compromise from 1790 to 1820.
  • Explore how this and other constitutional “rules” matter for political outcomes.

The Three-Fifths Compromise

  • What was it? The Three-Fifths Compromise held that three of every five slaves would count as “population” for the purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives.
  • Who advocated it? Southern states – where over 90 percent of slaves in America lived and “constituted about 30 percent of the population of the region.*
  • Who opposed it? Northern states – where very few slaves resided in America.

* Donald L. Robinson, Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, p. 4.

Examining Principles

Principle #1: All political behavior has a purpose. Political actors engage in instrumental acts to further their goals.

Southern States
Argument: Slaves should count fully toward the apportionment of House seats.

Northern States
Argument: Because they could not vote and were not citizens, slaves should not count toward the apportionment of House seats.

Principle #2: Rules and Procedures Matter.

The Results of the 3/5 Compromise

  • The South would get a representation “bonus” disproportionate to its free population but the Non-South states would retain majority control of the House of Representatives.
  • Not only did the 3/5 Compromise matter for the initial apportionment of House seats, but the south believed that they would continue to accrue benefits over time as the continued importation of slaves meant that the 3/5 rule, once established, would increase their House representation and offset non-slave population growth in the northwest.

The 3/5 rule had important consequences. Every law that passed the House of Representatives was “filtered” through the representation “bonus” the 3/5 Rule afforded the South.

Principle #4: History matters and historical outcomes are “path dependent;” that is, prior decisions and rules affect the outcomes that follow.

The Three-Fifths Compromise established an historical “path” that had continuing consequences:

  • THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 1800: Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams with 73 electoral votes to Adams’s 65 electoral votes. Inasmuch as 53 of Jefferson’s votes came from southern states and only 9 of the Adams votes were southern, the South’s “bonus” representation in the House accounts for Jefferson’s presidential victory in 1800.
  • THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE: Once elected president, Jefferson negotiated the “ Louisiana Purchase” which increased the amount of southern land where slavery could thrive. This, which itself was a partial result of the “southern bonus” in the House, in turn, further increased southern strength in the House.

Any future effort to repeal the “federal ratio” set by the 3/5 compromise likely would have to be approved by the House which was disproportionately southern because of both the 3/5 Rule and the Louisiana Purchase.

Question 1: What was the instrumental reasoning behind the arguments in support of and opposition to the Three-Fifths Compromise?

Question 2: How many “extra” House seats did the South get as a result of the 3/5 Rule in 1790? In 1800? In 1810? In 1820?

Question 3: What advantages did the 3/5 Rule give the South in national policymaking?

Question 4: What advantages did the 3/5 Rule give the South in presidential elections?

Question 5: How do rules, particularly rules about apportioning representation, self-perpetuate?

 

Source: Data on House apportionment figures is from Harold W. Stanley and Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics in American Politics, 1997-1998 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1998), pp. 193-5; data on percentage of slaves in state populations is adapted by author from Donald L. Robinson, Slavery in the Structure of American Politics (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), pp. 23, 39, 180, 404.

Source: Data on House apportionment figures is from Harold W. Stanley and Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics In American Politics, 1997-1998 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1998), pp. 193-5; data on percentage of slaves in state populations is adapted by author from Donald L. Robinson, Slavery in the Structure of American Politics (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), pp. 23, 39, 180, 404.

Information accessed and slightly modified from the following: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/polisci/lowi/lowi9/principles/ch02.asp

Accessed: 9/24/07