The Three-Fifths Compromise: An Unfair Fraction


“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among 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.”


These are lines from the controversial “Three-Fifths Clause” originally written into Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States’ Constitution.

The Three-Fifths Compromise

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a part of a series of compromises between Northern and Southern representatives enacted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which declared that three-fifths of the slave population in a state would be counted for purposes of determining representation in Congress and direct taxation. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment officially repealed this compromise.

The History

When the Articles of Confederation were drafted, a similar proposal to the three-fifths compromise was suggested. Originally, the Articles of Confederation had apportioned taxes according to land values, but a committee recommended they be assigned by population. There was significant debate over the ratio of slaves to free persons before James Madison ultimately suggested compromising at a 3-to-5 ratio. Almost all of the states approved the recommendation, but the proposal was defeated because it required unanimous agreement.

Years later, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Northern and Southern delegates clashed over how to count the enslaved population when considering representation. Representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College would be based on the population of each state. States with larger populations would receive more representatives, and a third of the population of Southern states was comprised of slaves. Therefore, if the slaves were not counted as a part of the states’ populations, the Southern states would have less influence in Congress. 

Northern and Southern delegates were forced to argue against their own beliefs for the sake of this issue. Northern delegates argued that the Constitution should not count slaves because if slaves are property then no other types of property are being considered. If the slaves were men, they should become citizens and be given the right to vote, but if they were property then the question became why other property was not included. Southern delegates argued that representation was based on population, so each slave should be considered as a full person, despite not having basic rights.

Proposed by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, the Three-Fifths Compromise settled this conflict by allowing Southern slaveholding states to count three-fifths of their population of slaves for purposes of representation. The compromise gave Southern states more influence in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. Without the additional congressional seats based on slave population, Southern states would have been a minority in the House and be outvoted quickly.

So What

The Three-Fifths Compromise had many long-term legal and political consequences. By agreeing to this inhumane compromise, the North gave the South excessive power, setting the stage for the struggle over slavery for the next century. Black people’s less-than-human status was used as justification for many more discriminatory practices in the future. Many historians also agree that the compromise shifted the outcome of some events, such as Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the presidential election of 1800 and the passing of the Indian Removal Act, due to Southern states having a disproportionate number of representatives compared to their population of free persons.

While the Three-Fifths Compromise may have been repealed, its legacy can still be seen today. In 1787, counting slaves was what slavers wanted because this resulted in higher power in Congress. Today, the opposite phenomenon can be seen. Black Americans want to be counted, but several states, especially those in the South, create obstacles to keep them from being represented in Congress, including gerrymandering, voter suppression, and lack of diversity in Census data. Ultimately, white politicians are still benefiting from the underrepresentation of Black residents in the United States.

Think Further

  1. What other ways can the legacy of the Three-Fifths Compromise be seen in American society today? 
  2. Consider how history may have been different if the North hadn’t agreed to the Three-Fifths Compromise. Do you think the Union would have split earlier? Would slavery have ended sooner? Would the Civil War have been avoided?
  3. Explain how the trend of appeasement and compromises continued after the Three-Fifths Compromise up until the Civil War broke out.


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Learn More

  1. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Three-fifths Compromise.” Britannica,
  2. Rael, Patrick. “A Compact for the Good of America? Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise.” AAIHS,
  3. “What is the ⅗ Compromise?”,
  4. Gilder Lehrman Institute. “The Three-Fifth Compromise.” Digital History,
  5. Jones, Abeni. “Legacy of the ⅗ Compromise to Be Felt in 2020.” PushBlack Now,
  6. Watkins, Abby. “How the Three-Fifths Compromise Skewed Counts of the U.S. Population.” Population Education,