Take a deep dive into the darkest corners of the 1787 federal Constitution and explore the wicked alchemy of the Three-Fifths Clause and its effect on US history before the Civil War.
The original United States Constitution looked both ways. Its preamble announces its purpose to secure “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” an important acknowledgment that liberty is the goal and right of all citizens. Better still, the Bill of Rights, a list of ten amendments added to the Constitution in 1791, recognizes freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and of petition—four freedoms that would come to serve as major channels for antislavery action and expression in the decades before the Civil War.
Yet, most constitutional scholars regard the 1787 Constitution as being vigorously pro-slavery, something that becomes apparent when we take a long hard look at its infamous Three-Fifths Clause. Far more insidious than is commonly understood, the Three-Fifths Clause wove slaveholder power into the fabric of each of all three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—shaping every aspect of federal policy regarding slavery for decades to come. And it turns out that the Three-Fifths clause was just one of almost a dozen clauses in the original Constitution that affected the relationships of the government of the United States to slavery and the slave trade. Through the chemistry of those other clauses, the many delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention who were slaveholders themselves, or who slavery-dependent or slavery-adjacent, worked to prop up and protect that institution. “Considering all circumstances,” one slave-owning delegate later boasted, “we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make.”
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Dr. Richard Bell, a history professor at the University of Maryland, explores how such delegates did their work, reconstructs all the contemporary opposition their work generated, and considers the legacy of clauses like Three-Fifths in our post-slavery world.