Sweet Christ, Now Republicans Are Defending The Three-Fifths Compromise

White Nonsense

Republicans are continuing their public service where they demonstrate why we need critical race theory and The 1619 Project while promoting bills that would ban critical race theory and cancel the year “1619." It's like one of those PSAs at the end of a "G.I. Joe" episode: Don't tell some creepy stranger on the phone that you're home alone, and don't defend the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Today, Tennessee Rep. Justin Lafferty, who was born in 1971, ranted on the state House floor about how awesome the Three-Fifths Compromise was. This reportedly led to members of the Black caucus huddling in groups, perhaps to collectively wonder what the fuck's wrong with the guy. I mean, they knew Lafferty was white, but this was just nuts.


LAFFERTY: The Three-Fifths Compromise was a direct effort to ensure that Southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country.

Ooh-kay. After the American Revolution, the enslaved population exploded in the South, growing from around 650,000 to 3.9 million in 1860. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of the United States but also expanded American slavery into the West. If the point of the Three-Fifths Compromise was to stop slavery eventually, which it wasn't, then it failed miserably. Americans literally fought a four-years long bloody war over the issue.

But this ahistorical gibberish is apparently a trend among conservatives in the age of MAGA. Last month, during a debate on a civics-education bill, Colorado Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks also claimed that the Three-Fifths Compromise got a bad rap.

"The Three-Fifths compromise, of course, was an effort by non-slave states … to try and reduce the amount of representation that the slave states had," Hanks said. "It was not impugning anybody's humanity."

Legally quantifying a human being as less than a full person is "impugning their humanity." That's how fractions work. Impugning is almost too nice a word for it. Impugning sounds like you suggested Black people didn't promptly RSVP to their enslavement.

Slavery posed a moral conundrum for the United States during its founding. This new nation was supposedly the land of the free, but there were all these people who weren't free. It's a little off-brand, so the solution was to dehumanize the enslaved population. Last week, a viral clip circulated from Chelsea Handler's 2016 series, Chelsea Does, in which a Confederate apologist compared enslaved people to farm equipment.

RACIST: People were taken care of. Would you take a tractor that you just bought brand new and tear it up, misuse it? No, you're going to take care of it, 'cause you just spent a pile of money on that. Those people produced their crops, worked their fields, so you're not gonna mistreat something like that.

If you grew up in the South, as I did, you heard this explanation often, literally in a history class whenever slavery was discussed. Gone With The Wind was a documentary to these people.

However, a tractor isn't a person, not even on the most materialistic level. This was a problem for Southern states whose “tractor" population was out-pacing their lazy white people population. By the Civil War, enslaved people accounted for more than 40 percent of the population in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. And they were a clear majority in Mississippi and South Carolina. Fortunately, they couldn't vote! (By the way, these statistics certainly explain white America's gun obsession.)

Lafferty and Hanks are not alone in arguing that the Compromise was a good thing because it limited the slave-holding states' political power, but like most compromises with the South, this only worked in their favor. It's also not like Black people received three-fifths of a vote. We barely have that now.

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from so-called “free" and slave-holding states debated over how to determine population for the purpose of legislative representation.

Having failed to secure the abolishment of slavery, some delegates from the Northern states sought to make representation dependent on the size of a state's free population. Southern delegates, on the other hand, threatened to abandon the convention if enslaved individuals were not counted. Eventually, the framers agreed on a compromise that called for representation in the House of Representatives to be apportioned on the basis of a state's free population plus three-fifths of its enslaved population. This agreement came to be known as the three-fifths compromise.

The former White House squatter's lost cause BS, the 1776 Project, rationalized this compromise and the perpetuation of slavery in general as necessary to ensure the union. The South would've bolted, likely preferring to remain under British rule so long as they still had enslaved humans preparing their tea and crumpets. Seriously, these people were fucking shiftless. But, and I know this is asking a lot, if you could look at this from enslaved people's perspective, why should they give a damn if the American experiment endures if they'll live and die in bondage regardless? Slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1833 and 1794 in France, before that asshole Napoleon reinstated the “trade," but it was abolished there completely by 1848. All these dates are earlier than 1863. I appreciate the romance languages so would have no problem speaking French today if it meant ending slavery sooner.

Millions of humans died in bondage after the Three-Fifths Compromise. Even if the intent was to kick the issue down the road, so a future generation of white people could figure out how to make their own beds, the United States is morally accountable for those ruined lives. Deciding not to “own" other humans isn't a complex, difficult issue requiring fancy “compromises." That's only the case if you're bereft of humanity yourself.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."

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