Sunday, May 6, 2018

For the Record: Three Fifths

Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael in 1966, via Wikipedia. I just learned, apropos of almost nothing, that he was a classmate of Samuel R. Delaney, of all people, at the Bronx High School of Science, where as it happens my son studied some decades later, when it was a far less diverse school, though still pretty good. This post is dedicated to the kid, who thoughtfully said, "Please don't blog about Kanye," which was surely good advice.

I just learned something totally new to me about American history, and specifically about the origins and significance of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which, as all literate Americans are expected to know, was the arrangement in which enslaved persons were counted as part of the population of the individual states, along with other people without full civil rights such as women and children, but at the rate of three fifths of a person, splitting the difference between the North, which didn't want to count them at all, and the South, which wanted to count them entirely, not because of differing opinions as to whether the African American was in fact a person or not but because the count was going to be the basis of deciding how many representatives each state would get in the financially powerful Lower House and the Electoral College, and counting the enslaved would give the Southern states more members and the Northern fewer.

Only it turns out that this story is actually completely wrong, almost as wrong as the view of the lunatic to whose tweet I was responding:
Oh my god.

I was somewhat wrong about that; the Red-Headed Libertarian was suggesting that the plantation owners would have beaten up their slaves if they didn't vote the right way. But she really didn't know that mean King George or the Articles of Confederation hadn't given them voting rights.

The more interesting part, as I've learned, is that the story we tell ourselves is also wrong; the compromise covered not just the apportionment of seats in the House but also any direct taxation the Congress might decide to levy, and it was actually taxation that was the issue, and the Northerners who wanted the slaves to be counted:
The Southerners wanted to count slaves as a quarter of a person, if they could get away with it, and the Northerners as three quarters.
It was only later, into the 19th century, that the Southerners got a sense of the math and realized that counting the slaves at a higher ratio could give them an advantage.

But the origin of the thing wasn't that way at all; it really was, as your instinct might tell you, that the Southerners didn't regard black people as full humans, at least when it came to their tax liabilities, and the Northerners did in some rudimentary kind of way.

As in the case of the Boston Tea Party, which was not a protest against a tax on tea, as everybody wrongly knows, but a tax break on tea imported by the (Crown-backed) East India Company, giving the Company an unfair competitive advantage over the local importers, an imperial monopoly. It's another case where the Founders' view is in some sense more "left" than the story we learned in school, in that there was the sense of a germ of an understanding, among the white gentlemen holding the debate, of the transcendent issue.

I was present once when Kwame Ture, in those days Stokely Carmichael, lecturing a crowd of mostly white college students, got a laugh by saying, "Constitu-... constitu-... constitu-... I can only pronounce three fifths of that word." It was a somewhat better-taken joke than any of us understood, and we should understand it better.

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