Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Three-Fifths Compromise & "Radical" Reconstruction

Over on Andrew Sullivan's blog, Chris Bodenner quotes a reader pointing out a crucial but poorly understood point about the notorious "Three-Fifths Compromise" in the original US Constitution, which was that its overt function was not to denigrate blacks per se, but rather to reduce the political power of the slaveholding South:

I'm continually surprised at how many people don't understand the three-fifths compromise in the original U.S. Constitution, usually describing it somewhat like Cord Jefferson does: "the three-fifths compromise, in which the government decided that black slaves were subhuman." The clear implication here that the Constitution codified a black slave was worth only 60% of a normal human, because they didn't count as much as "free Persons" in establishing proportional representation in the House.

But this understanding is completely backwards; black slaves would have been better off if the Constitution counted them at one-fifth, or not at all. The southern states would have been much happier had the slaves counted as whole persons, or better yet, 5 persons each!

Quite as Andrew's reader says: during the Constitution, Southerners argued that slaves should be apportioned at 100 percent, whereas Northerners argued they should only count for 20 percent - or perhaps not at all. The issue had nothing directly to do with racism, but rather was entirely about political power in a broad sense.

Just as important is how this inversion of the conventional misunderstanding helps us understand what took place after the Civil War, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments granted blacks full citizenship status — namely the North's effort to impose what came to be known as "Radical Reconstruction," which sought to guarantee blacks' civil rights over the howling protests of the white supremacists in the South.

In the (white) South, Reconstruction was represented as a violation of state sovereignty by a vindictive and socially utopian North. But in fact, it was nothing of the sort: it was a direct effort to make sure that an unregenerate South would not be able to undermine the political sovereignty of the North. The great post-bellum fear in the North was that, if blacks were not granted full political power, then the former Confederate white supremacists would be returned to the union, but now with even greater political power than they had had in the antebellum period, since all the former slaves (who formerly had counted for only 60% for apportionment purposes) would now count at 100% for apportionment purposes, thereby granting more political weight to the old Southern political elites.

So-called "radical" reconstruction was motivated, in other words, by the "radical" idea that the former confederates should not be rewarded for their treason by being reincorporated into the national fold with even more power than they had had before the war. Only actually giving blacks real political power could prevent this outcome, as everyone at the time well understood.

Alas, subsequent history shows that those fears were hardly misplaced. As we all know, "radical" reconstruction failed, blacks were disenfranchised, and for at least the next century precisely what the Radicals feared in fact took place: the racist southern political class would continue to punch far above its national weight until at least the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and arguably until 2009.

P.S. Noah Millman makes an appropriate rebuttal to the purely political interpretation offered above:
The three-fifths compromise was, from a purely practical perspective, a positive inasmuch as it weakened the South relative to the North. But it was hugely negative from an ideological perspective because it established in America’s founding document that slaves were not analogous to women and children – that they were something less than full (nonvoting) members of the community.

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