Slavery, Three Fifths Compromise and U.S. Constitution


In the history of the U.S, the institution of slavery has always been addressed in relation to Africans who had fallen victim to slave trade and found themselves sold as laborers in the New World. Apparently, children born to these slaves also inherited the status of their parents; that of second class citizens in the land of their birth. Although slavery was practiced in America for quite some time, the institution differed with the Declaration of Independence which affirmed that all men shared the same level of equality right from the creation of mankind and that each individual was entitled not only to the right of life but also to liberty and pursuit of happiness. The framers of the U.S Constitution like their predecessors in the Articles of Confederation avoided the use of the term slave and instead referred to them by such words as persons or laborers. But even though they did not condone slavery, neither did they abolish it. This was because majority of the framers were slave owners; they had met to form a national government; and any Constitution written had to be acceptable to all Americans as well as unite them as a nation. Any inclusion of provisions to end slavery at this juncture would have driven away the southern states (Vile 2005, p.726; McDuffie 2008, ¶ 1).

Slavery, Three Fifths Compromise and the Constitution

The Three-fifths Compromise holds great significance in the U.S Constitution as it refers to an agreement that was arrived at during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although slavery had been introduced and thrived in the U.S.A, it was not prominent in all states and the northern and southern states conflicted over the inclusion of slaves as part of the American population. The Constitution proposed to alter the Articles of Federation so that taxation would be based not on properties but on the number of people in a state. While the smaller states opposed taxation according to property, the populated states on the other hand were quite reluctant about inclusion of slaves in the total population. The issue of population also raised another dispute over whether slaves would be counted as real persons or not. The southern states proposed the counting of slaves as part of the total American population so that they would acquire more seats in the U.S Congress and subsequently gain more political power. The northern states on the other hand opposed such a move so as to limit the number of seats for the south. During the Constitutional Congress, the ratio of representation for free persons Vs that of slaves became a very debatable issue. Through Three-fifths Compromise, it was agreed that only three fifths of the total slave population would be counted as part of the nation’s population. This ratio was also referred to as the federal ratio and the word slave was excluded for fear that use of it would lead to more issues and delay the formation of a government (Vile 2005, pp.140, 246, 314).

Other clauses referring to slavery in the Constitution were the Slave Importation Clause and the Fugitive Slave Clause. The Slave Importation Clause barred Congress from restricting the importation of slaves for a period of 20 years or 1808. A tax not exceeding 10 dollars could however be places for each slave imported. Through the Fugitive Slave Clause, provisions were made for the repatriation of escaped slaves back to their masters. The clause also stated that escaping to a state where slavery was not practiced did not guarantee a slave his freedom and he was constitutionally bound to the master. By ensuring that runaway slaves went back to their masters, these masters did not have to purchase more slaves and therefore were able to save money for expansion of their plantations (McDuffie 2008, ¶ 5).

For economic reasons, the framers of the Constitution avoided the slavery question. The southern states were primarily agricultural, with vast pieces of farming land under plantation and more of it for expansion. Plantation crops such as cotton also required a lot of labor and as cotton plantations grew in size, the crop value per slave also shot up. This strengthened the southern hold on slaves who became an essential to these states as they provided free labor and in such way, farmers were able to save much profit and expand their plantations for more production (Vile 305).


The issue of slavery has marked the history of the U.S for a number of centuries and was one of the most crucial and sensitive aspects during the framing of the U.S constitution. By avoiding the mention of the word slave in making of the Constitution, no provision was made for its abolishment and the institution remained hidden in the U.S Constitution. The Three Fifths Compromise became one of the many clauses that concealed slavery within the constitution and also demonstrated the unwillingness of the framers to do away with the institution (Vile 2005, p.726).


McDuffie, N. “Framers, Slavery, and the Constitution.” Associated Content. 2008. Web.

Vile, J. R. (2005). The Constitutional Convention of 1787: A comprehensive encyclopedia of America’s founding. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

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