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What is the Three-Fifths Compromise?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The three-fifths compromise was an agreement between Southern and Northern states reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, during which the basic framework of the United States was established. Under this compromise, only three-fifths of the slave population was counted for the purpose of taxation and representation in Congress. Counting slaves as part of the population rather than as property would give the Southern states more political clout.

As all compromises do, the three-fifths compromise started as a dispute. Most of the Northern states did not want to count slaves at all, arguing that they should be treated as property, since they didn't have votes or any other power. The Southern states, however, wanted to count slaves as people so that they would get more representation in Congress, solidifying their political power. The North resisted this, fearing that counting slaves in this way would increase the Congressional seats apportioned to the South, thereby making the South extremely formidable.

In the end, two representatives, James Wilson and Roger Sherman, came up with the three-fifths compromise, which was designed to meet the demands of both sides. Recognizing the desire of the South and wanting to reach out to the Southern states to encourage them to ratify, the three-fifths compromise allowed the government to count part of the slave population, while allaying the fears of the North about Southern power.

Of course, many people in the Northern states kept slaves as well, but the vast majority of slaves in America at the time were working on Southern plantations as agricultural laborers. Under the three-fifths compromise, plantation owners in the South gained considerable political power, which they used to promote their own political agenda and desires.

The language of the Constitution avoided using the term "slaves," with the relevant text reading: "...shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons." Some people have suggested that the "all other persons" language indicated that the framers of the Constitution opposed slavery, and that they wished to establish a document which would be flexible in the event that slavery was abolished. It is more likely, however, that the language was designed to give wiggle-room so that others in addition to slaves could be counted under this definition, given that slavery was widespread and commonly accepted by the Founders.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon997053 — On Nov 09, 2016

The 3/5 compromise was to lessen the influence of the slave holding states in Congress and gradually do away with slavery.

The crap at this site is mind-blowing. No wonder ignorant people are burning down their own neighborhoods.

By anon355800 — On Nov 19, 2013

I think that it is when they enslaved African Americans and tried to sell them but the Supreme Court would not let them. No, it is not fair to enslave people because they are human too.

By anon313183 — On Jan 10, 2013

I came across this by accident and thought I would throw my two cents in. anon299706 or post 14 is right. We can’t change history, but we can learn from it just as our founding fathers did. and post 16. I'm not white, not even close, but I will tell you this, I think your completely wrong. If you look for a problem you’ll find it. If we educate ourselves beyond what's on the surface or the easy answer we get, you'll find the founding fathers of this country had it right.

For instance, the three-fifths compromise was so the southern states had less political clout not more. If the “slave” states had it their way they would have counted every slave as a whole person giving them more pro slave representation in the congress. The plan all along by our constitutional framers was to abolish slavery (research how George Washington treated his slaves).

The thing the founding fathers knew was that no war was ever won over night, so they “dug in” and picked apart the old ways by creating The United States Constitution. Remember slavery has been common all over the world for a long time including Africa, and not just whites enslaving blacks, it’s all races and even the same races. We seem to be so cough up in pointing the finger at the establishment that we never think to point the finger at ourselves.

Tyrants come to rule when people put a monetary value on their morals. It’s what is happening to our country right now, but again maybe we need to look at ourselves first. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” - unknown

By anon307007 — On Dec 03, 2012

Whether it's three-fifths of the population or three-fifths of a person, it's a moot discussion within the context of deeply entrenched racism, which is the essence of America's system of government and seats of governance.

Against the engrained perspective of the red, white and blue striped, Kool-Aid drinkers, this 238 year-old, American Republic, in terms of tangible equality, has changed little since 1776. We the people remain under the control of white ruling classes along distinct lines of race, ethnicity, and gender.

After 238 years of declaring equality under the law, Black people on average make 68 cents for every dollar made by their white counterparts regardless of education attainment, marketable skills and/or professional/personal accomplishments.

By anon299706 — On Oct 26, 2012

@giraffeears: I agree that slavery is wrong, but what would've happened if we as humans didn't have slaves? No one is perfect and neither is the world, so I guess we will have to deal with the mistakes our ancestors made and move on. After all, what can we do?

We can't change history but we can prevent it the same things from happening again.

By anon267020 — On May 08, 2012

@GiraffeEars: Gee, well I suppose it would have been better to allow the South to have counted slaves as full people, so Southern slave states would have been dominant in national politics.

Now tell me, how would that have been better for the cause of abolition, if the Southern slave states were the powerful and influential? Honestly, I don't even think Lincoln could have won the election if history were more to your liking.

By anon146911 — On Jan 27, 2011

@giraffe and frame: The same campaign contribution level limits are still in place. The ruling was in regard to limits on running political ads.

By anon146910 — On Jan 27, 2011

@giraffe: the slaves could not vote, so rather than have the slave states receive full apportionment in Congress and the electoral college based on the number of slaves, and therefore greater power in the federal government to support slavery, the anti-slave states were successful at reducing the population counts, restricting them somewhat. Read the Hamilton quote.

By anon141485 — On Jan 10, 2011

RE: South gaining political power.

On the contrary, the compromise ensured that the Southern states would not obtain a majority in the Congress to foist the 'slavery' issue in the nation. This is why the Southern states evidently seceded from the nation which initiated the Civil War. The statements of this site is the 'standard' liberal viewpoint used to diminish the Constitution's integrity, validity and strength as the foundational document of the United States.

By anon140335 — On Jan 07, 2011

To whom it may concern: The three-fifths clause referred to counting three-fifths of the population of slaves (non-voting property) in a given state for congressional representation- not that an individual slave was three-fifths of a human being? Sheesh!

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, "nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

By FrameMaker — On Sep 29, 2010

@ GirraffeEars- It is interesting that you relate the three fiths compromise to the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign financing, but I have to say that I agree. What I do not understand is if a company is considered a person in the context of voting, then why aren't they bound to the contribution limits set on individuals?

I thought that people were only allowed to donate something like $2500 to a candidate to avoid candidates being bought out. This new law seems like the most corrupt interpretation of the law to seep out of the Supreme Court in my lifetime.

By GiraffeEars — On Sep 29, 2010

It's such a shame that as advanced a species as humans are, things like slavery and sexual exploitation exist. How someone could rationalize the three-fifths compromise as something that is right is beyond me. If the person counts as three-fifths of a person, but is only allowed to vote the way that their master requires them to, then their voice does not count.

You can almost relate this logic to the current logic in the Supreme Court that states that corporations are people and should be able to donate as much as they like to political campaigns. It gives corporations a larger voice than they deserve. The voice of a vote should be dependent on the number of people represented, not the amount of money, or the amount of slaves that they own.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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