The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson

Containing His Articles, Observations, Thoughts, Meanderings,
and some would say Wisdom (and some would say not).

Blacks are Three-fifths of a Human and the Explosion of Slavery

Blacks are 3/5 of a Human in the Constitution is a phrase that is often misused, as it was not for the purposes of placing a value upon a person, but for political power within the House of Representatives. The Constitutional Convention era was a tumultuous time in American history. Tumultuously economically due to the burden of debt from the American Revolution, and States trying to protect their economic interests through tariffs and taxes on goods imported from other States. Also, there were threats of United States sovereignty by England, France, and Spain. Many States were on the verge of warfare with other States as a result of these tumultuous times. The Constitutional Convention was called to resolve these issues so that:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The framers of the Constitution were acutely aware of these circumstances and were dedicated to the creation of a government that could resolve these problems. They knew that it was extremely important that they resolve these differences, and they also knew that the question of slavery could prevent the resolution of these problems. They, therefore, decided on a compromise of the slavery issue that would allow the Constitution to be passed and adopted.

The Constitution skirted the slavery issue in two clauses, and never even mentioned slavery in the document. The first skirting was in how to count slaves for the purposes of the number of legislators in the House of Representatives. The second skirting was in how to avoid the slavery issue as the Constitution was being implemented in the first two decades of its adoption. These two skirts, and the reasons for, and consequences are as follows.

Counting Slaves

Article. I, - Section. 2, Clause 3. of the Constitution states:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which 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.”

Representation in the House of Representatives was determined by the number of people residing in the State. The more residents you had the more Congressmen you had. This was a huge issue for the framers as the Anti-Slavery States want slaves not to be counted at all so that they would have proportionately more members in the House of Representatives where they could try to end slavery. The Pro-Slavery States wanted to count slaves fully so that they would have proportionately more members in the House of Representatives where they could protect slavery. The 3/5ths compromise satisfied no one, but it did allow the Constitution to be passed.

Postponing the Question.

The other, indirect, mention of slavery in the Constitution is:

Article I, Section 9. of the Constitution states:

 “The Migration and Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

This clause was worded so as to prohibit the issue of slavery in Congress from being brought up until the year 1808. The reason for 1808 was to assure that the slavery issue did not become contentious and disrupt the founding, and possible dissolution of the United States due to the slavery issue. They also wished to postpone the issue of slavery until a new generation as many believed that slavery was a dying institution that would not survive into the new generation. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other intellectual slaveholders knew that slavery was becoming a financial burden and they thought it would eventually die off. It was becoming a financial burden as the upkeep of their slaves was costing more than a slave produced in income. This is a sure and steady way to become bankrupt. In this belief, they were wrong, for unforeseen circumstances, which resulted in The Civil War.

Explosion of Slavery

The unforeseen circumstances were in the advancements of Technology and Transportation. Most slaves were utilized for domestic and agriculture purposes. And the agriculture purpose was in food and tobacco crops. Tobacco prices fluctuated considerable, while crops had good and bad years for many reasons including weather, pestilence, and soil erosion. Cotton was not a major crop, as cotton was difficult to harvest and gin. Harvesting was back-breaking and slow work while ginning involved removing the seed from the sticky fibers that would be manufactured into cotton, all of which was done by slaves. This ginning process involved taking a picked cotton ball and through manual dexterity popping the seed from the center of the cotton ball. This process only yielded a few cotton balls per minute or maybe a bag of cotton a day. The seed would be placed in a bucket while the fiber was placed in a burlap bag. These bags would then be transported to a river or seaport where they were then be transported to a cotton mill. This transportation was time-consuming and labor intensive. For these reasons, cotton was an expensive product to bring to market and, indeed, silk from China cost less than cotton. Most people wore woolen garments (which were itchy) while the well-off people trimmed their cuffs with cotton to minimize the itch, or the richer people had silk garments that had no itching.

Navigable rivers and seaports were often distant from the plantation, and the crop had to be transported by horse and wagon over many miles of roads to these rivers and seaports. Roads were few, travel subject to weather conditions, and even at their best difficult to travel upon. It could take days or weeks to transport crops to these navigable rivers and seaports, all of which was done by slave labor. The profit obtained from these efforts were marginal, and often due to the fluctuation of market prices for crops the plantation owner suffered a loss. In all of these efforts, the slaves need to be fed, clothed, and housed, which cost the plantation owner much monies. This is why intellectual slave owners felt that slavery was going to die off.

So, what changed this situation to make cotton very profitable? Three things happened; the invention of the Cotton Gin, the improvement of roads, and the dredging of rivers to make them navigable.

The invention of the Cotton Gin mechanized the ginning of cotton. Placing the cotton balls in a hopper, turning the crank, and having the machine separate the seeds from the cotton fibers meant that large volumes of cotton ginning could be done in minutes. The only problem was picking large volumes of cotton for the Cotton Gin, and for this large numbers of slaves were required. As the Cotton Gins became bigger and better you needed more slaves to pick the cotton. Slavery was now very much needed for cotton production. This was coupled with the improvement of roads and navigable rivers. To quickly get the cotton to market road creation and improvements were undertaken. More and better roads were created which decreased the time it took to transport the cotton crop to navigable rivers and seaports. Rivers were being dredged to make them navigable, and more and better seaports were being constructed. Add to this the construction of canals and the invention of steam railroads that began in the early 1800s the transportation costs and times were significantly reduced.

Cotton became King as it was now very profitable. But with those profits came with the need for more and more slaves to harvest then gin the cotton. The tensions between the Pro-Slavery and Anti-Slavery States rose dramatically. This, and other issues between the north and south, mainly industrial versus agriculture interests, ultimately led us to the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery.

Given the above, you can see why the statement “Blacks are 3/5 of a Human in the Constitution” does not accurately portray the historical context of what occurred.