HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 24, 2007
Condoleezza Rice, Ignorant of History

Eric Zencey


I’ve got a few pet peeves, and Condoleezza Rice has been giving voice to one of them. In several speeches, she's made the point that the U.S. Constitution treated black Americans as "Three-fifths of a human." 

This is a misreading of history.  It’s fairly widespread among politically illiterate people, and Rice’s use of it certainly isn’t her worst offense against probity and integrity. (For impact and moral grandstanding, you’d be hard pressed to match that smoking gun-mushroom cloud analogy she laid before us in justifying the war in Iraq).  But her references to the three-fifths clause in the Constitution do contribute to a sense that for her, lying and misrepresentation for political advantage is a kind of low-grade fever, one that’s likely to affect her every public act and deed.  And this one is particularly annoying because it just isn’t necessary.  African Americans were enslaved; we know that.  If you want to make a rhetorical appeal for the moral sympathy of your audience, you can remind people that your ancestors were slaves.  But the Constitution (which I presume she’s sworn to uphold, which implies a prior duty to understand) does not say that slaves are to be treated as three-fifths human. 

You can find that three-fifths fraction in the Constitution, true; but as with most truths, context is everything.  And African Americans would have been worse off if the number had been five fifths. A little history shows why. 

Article I, section 2 of The U. S. Constitution clearly says,

“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.”

This is the section that describes how the House of Representatives is going to be set up. It will offer representation by size of population--"Representatives...shall be apportioned among the several States...according to their respective Numbers."  The more residents you have, the more representation you get in Congress.  Who counts as resident for purposes of apportioning Congressional seats?  This paragraph says: indentured servants, yes; native Americans, no; and slaves are a different matter entirely.
 
At the Constitutional Convention, representatives of the anti-slavery north, and some few enlightened representatives elsewhere, wanted slaves NOT to be counted for purposes of Congressional apportionment.  Many in the north, and some in the south, wanted slavery abolished.  Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner, knew that slavery was wrong and wanted it abolished; in his original draft of the Declaration, he had listed among King George's actionable offenses the King's encouragement of the slave trade:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

This passage was excised by the review committee, for several reasons:  The language is flamboyant and unrestrained, and out of character with the clean, crisp, neutrally reportorial language in which the other elements of the indictment are brought.  And more to the point, a sizable portion of the southern aristocracy had no wish to charge King George with a crime for behavior they wanted to keep on committing.  So they insisted it be cut.

Attendees at the Constitutional Convention knew that slavery was an immense and troubling issue, one that could prevent the formation of the Union--and one that would, eventually, tend to drive a nascent union apart.   

Excluding slaves from the apportionment census would have minimized the representation of slave-owning states, giving the free states of the North more power in Congress.  That position was roundly rejected by slave states, including Virginia--which was, along with New York, one of the two largest states.  It is fair to say that if either Virginia or New York had rejected the Constitution, there would have been no United States.  Everyone at the Convention knew that the approval of the voters of these two states would be crucial. 

And so a deal was struck, the famous three-fifths compromise.  The north wouldn't get what it wanted, which was no counting of slaves at all.  The south wouldn't get what it wanted, which was counting slaves one-for-one toward increased representation in Congress.  For purposes of Congressional Apportionment, the population of slaves would be reduced by two-fifths. The abolitionist north fought the slave power on this issue, and the three-fifths compromise was the best they could get. 

Had this compromise not been struck, the Union would likely never have come together. And if the "slavocracy" of the south had had its way--counting each slave as a whole person for purposes of apportionment--the slave states would have exercised more power in Congress, further resisting and retarding the movement toward abolition that came to a head with Lincoln's nomination a little more than a half-century later. 

For contemporary Americans to bewail the compromise as having told blacks they are "three-fifths a man" is simple ignorance.  It was in the enslaved blacks' best interests not to be counted at all for this purpose.

This key episode in Constitutional history ought to have been learned by anyone presuming to practice law.  It certainly must have been covered in some course that Condoleezza Rice took in school.  So, the unanswered questions:  does she know better?
Is she truly ignorant, or is she pandering to the ignorance of her audience by using a cheap, easy, inaccurate and unjust symbolism? 

Ordinary ignoramus or unfair manipulator?  Which is worse?  You be the judge.


Eric Zencey is author of a novel, Panama, and a collection of essays about how we think about nature, Virgin Forest.  He currently teaches history and environmental studies for Empire State College in Europe and New York.


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