Three-Fifths Compromise

The Three-Fifths compromise was a compromise between the Southern and Northern states reached during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 in which three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted for enumeration purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the House of Representatives. (Wikipedia contributors, 2008) The question is whether slaves should be counted as people or property to determine each states financial contribution to the central government?

At the Constitutional Convention, the North wanted to count slaves as people verses property seeing as taxes were determined by population. On the other hand, the South wanted slaves to be counted as people for apportioning Representatives.

At the time the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, there were more than 500,000 black American slaves. Jefferson had expressed American injustice and explained why the colonists were breaking away and were no longer under any obligations of civil obedience with the British. His words stated America’s beliefs of freedom and equality.

However, in spite of his beliefs, Thomas Jefferson himself was a slave owner that had owned more than 100 slaves. Slaves accounted for about one-fifth of the population in the American colonies. Most of them lived in the Southern colonies, where slaves made up 40 percent of the population.

Many colonists, even slave holders, hated slavery. Thomas Jefferson called it a “hideous blot” on America. George Washington, who owned hundreds of slaves, denounced it as “repugnant.” George Mason, a Virginia slave owner, condemned it as “evil.” (The Constitution and Slavery, 2008).

Southern colonists relied on slavery and were among the richest in America. Their cash crops of tobacco, indigo, and rice depended on slave labor, which they were not willing to give up.

The first U.S. National government began under the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. This document said nothing about slavery. It left the power to legalize slavery, as well as most powers to the individual states. After their experience with the British, the colonists doubted a strong central government. The new national government consisted solely of a Congress in which each state had one vote.

The new government proved to be unsuccessful with little power to carry out its laws or collect taxes. In May 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia. Rhode Island refused to send a delegation. Their original goal was to revise the Articles of Confederation. In the middle of secret sessions they changed their goal to write a new Constitution. The outline of the new government would consist of three branches which was the executive, judiciary, and a two-house legislature.

A dispute occurred with the legislative branch. States with large populations wanted representation in both houses of the legislature to be based on population. States with small populations wanted each state to have the same number of representatives, like under the Articles of Confederation.

Edmund Randolph of Virginia had proposed The Virginia Plan that favored the large states, including Virginia, which consisted of:
1) A bicameral legislature, with the lower chamber chosen by the people and the smaller upper chamber chosen by the lower chamber from nominees selected the state legislatures. The number of representatives would be proportional to a state’s population, favoring the large states. This legislature could void any state laws.
2) The making of an unspecified national executive, elected by the legislature.
3) The making of a national judiciary, appointed by the legislature.
It did not take long for the smaller states to realize they would not benefit and knew it was time for them to come up with their own plan.

William Paterson of New Jersey proposed a different plan called The New Jersey Plan, which consisted of:
1) The primary ruling of the Articles of Confederation-one state, one vote would be preserved.
2) Congress would be able to regulate trade and impose taxes
3) All acts of Congress would be the supreme law of the land.
4) Several people would be elected by Congress to form an executive office.
5) The executive office would appoint a Supreme Court
The New Jersey plan was an amendment of the Articles of Confederation. The only significant feature was its reference to the supremacy doctrine, which state in Article VI of the Constitution that the laws passed by the national government under its constitutional powers, and all treaties represent the supreme law of the land.

This argument carried on for two months. Finally the delegates agreed to the Great Compromise also known as the Connecticut Compromise, which was proposed by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, which consisted of:
1) A bicameral legislature in which the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, would be apportioned according to the population in each state, plus three-fifths of the slaves.
2) An upper chamber, the Senate, which would have two members from each state elected by the state legislatures.
The Connecticut Compromise resolved the large state vs. small state disagreement. It did correct a political price because it allowed each state to have equal representation in the Senate. Having two senators represent each state determined the voting power of citizens living in more heavily populated states and gave unequal political powers.

The issue of how to count slaves split the delegates into two orders. The Northerners regarded slaves as property who should receive no representation. Southerners demanded that Blacks be counted with whites. The compromise clearly reflected the strength of the pro-slavery forces at the convention. The Three-Fifths Compromise allowed a state to count three-fifths of each Black person in determining political representation in the House. (Historic U.S. Cases, 1992)

The three-fifths figure was the outgrowth of a debate that had taken place within the Continental Congress in 1783. The Articles of Confederation had apportioned taxes not according to population but according to land values. The states consistently undervalued their land in order to reduce their tax burden. To rectify this situation, a special committee recommended apportioning taxes by population. Northerners favored a 4-to-3 ratio, while southerners favored a 2-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio. Finally James Madison suggested a compromise of 5-to-3 ratio. New Hampshire and Rhode Island did not approve this recommendation and because the Articles of Confederation require a unanimous agreement, the proposal was defeated. Later when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, it adopted Madison’s earlier suggestion of 5-to-3 ratio. (Mintz, 2007).

While the Constitutional Convention was debating in Philadelphia, it turns out there was a second compromise that was taking place in New York. With many members absent and the South for the time being holding a majority, Congress had passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the Northwest Territory. This land would be divided into five states: Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and parts of Wisconsin.

Some people believed that slave economies worked only in warmer climates; there would therefore have been little incentive to import slaves north across the Ohio River. (Collier, 1986, p. 219)

The Northwest Ordinance had a clause promising that slaves who escaped to the Northwest Territories would be returned to their owners. This was part of the price of making the Northwest Territories free. The delegates placed a similar fugitive slave clause as well. In exchange for the fugitive slave clause, the New England states got concessions on shipping and trade.

Another compromise found in section 9 of Article I, stipulates that Congress would not be able to prohibit the importation of slaves before 1808, although they may tax them $10 per slave. This helped to offset the Southern fears that Congress’ power to regulate commerce would be used to abolish slavery. This provision could not be changed by amendment, therefore, giving the slave trade a 20 year reprieve.

The fugitive slave clause allowed escaped slaves to be chased into the North and caught. It also resulted in the illegal kidnapping and return to slavery for thousands of free blacks. The Three-Fifths Compromise increased the South’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College.


Collier, C., & Collier, J. (1986). Decision in Philadelphia the Constitutional Convention of 1787.New York: Ballantine Books.

Historic U.S. Cases 1690-1993:
An Encyclopedia New York
Copyright 1992 Garland Publishing, New York
ISBN 0-8240-4430-4
Retrieved 19:08, February 20, 2008 from African American Registry web site:

Mintz, S. (2007). The three-fifth compromise. Retrieved February 20, 2008, from Digital History web site:

Ratification Debate on the U.S. Constitution. Retrieved, February 20, 2008, from Constitutional Rights Foundation web site:

Three-fifths compromise. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:06, February 29, 2008, from

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