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05/28/2021

John McGinnis on the Three-Fifths Clause
Michael Ramsey

At Law & Liberty, John McGinnis: What Did the Three-Fifths Clause Really Mean? From the introduction:

The Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted three-fifths of a state’s slave population for purposes of taxation and the apportionment of representatives and presidential electors, was repealed by the Reconstruction Amendments over 160 years ago. Yet it still stirs strong political passions that are unfortunately not matched by knowledge of its genesis, content, or effects.

A few weeks ago, Justin Lafferty, a member of the Tennessee House of Representative, stated that the three-fifths compromise was part of an abolitionist movement to end slavery. Other commentators have denounced the compromise, arguing instead that it was wrong because it denigrated slaves as three-fifths of a person. Both perspectives illustrate the distortions that inevitably occur when history becomes a casualty of our culture wars.

The three-fifths compromise reveals the intricacies of history and the care necessary when critiquing the actions of our forebears. Correctly understood, it reveals that historical events are themselves dependent on their own past and have unforeseen future consequences. And it also shows the importance of considering history counterfactually: there is indeed an argument that the three-fifths compromise ultimately helped end slavery, even if had nothing to do with the abolition movement, because the compromise was necessary to the creation of the union. History can ask normative questions, but only if it is not turned into a simple-minded morality play, where it is assumed that even the best of actors of the past acted only under our current constraints.

And from the conclusion:

Rep. Lafferty’s remarks came in an attack on critical race theory. Supporters of that theory seized on his error to suggest that they showed why critical race theory is needed. But the incident shows nothing of the kind. First, his critics often got their understanding of the three-fifths compromise wrong, not recognizing that fully counting the slaves would have been worse for the cause of ending slavery. Second, while Lafferty was not correct in connecting the clause with abolitionism, the three-fifths compromise was likely one of the compromises needed to create the union, which likely ended slavery faster than the plausible alternatives. Critical race theory, which sees American history as a simple tale of racial subordination, would suppress such analysis. Third, even the three-fifths compromise is far more complex in its effects than can be captured through the prism of race. Critical race theory, like Marxist theories of history, is terribly reductionist. Party lines in history always lead to a flattening of a past’s many dimensions.

Rejecting history as a species of agitprop does not mean we must suspend all moral judgments. Evaluating the historic events of our nation is necessary for the continuity of a community like ours, which depends upon a relation to a shared past. But these judgments also depend on an imaginative sympathy with our forebears and an ability to project ourselves into a world shaped by concepts and confusions not our own. If the history of America becomes a way to project our current polarities on the past, it will become a mirror of our present discontents and a source of disunion.