Yes, Slavery Did Cause the Civil War, Part 3.

Slavery and Power

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution reads:

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. [My emphasis]

The notorious “three-fifths” clause was one of the crucial compromises of the Constitutional Convention. It meant that when counting people to see how many members each state would get in the House of Representatives, slaves would be counted as three fifths of a person. In other words, a state would be entitled to one member of the House for every 30,000 whites or 50,000 slaves. A common misconception of this is that Southerners hated blacks so much they “only counted slaves as 3/5s of a person.” But this misses the salient point, since it was Southerners who wanted to count each slave as a full person—but only for the purposes of representation. Northerners, on the other hand, didn’t want to count slaves at all. Northerners felt that counting property was silly. One doesn’t count livestock, for example, when deciding representation; why would one count slaves? And so, the compromise. But while it was necessary to get the Southern states to join the new Union, this three-fifths compromise had profound effects on the American political system, especially the shape and composition of the federal government. It led to what Northerners came to call the “Slavocracy,” or sometimes the “slave-power conspiracy.”

To begin with, slave states had a substantially greater number of members of the House of Representatives than they would have without counting slaves. For example, the states that joined the Confederacy had by 1860 just 19% of the free population of the country, yet they had almost 28% of the seats in the House. And so the three-fifths clause expanded the power of slave states in Congress.

But the effect of this moved beyond giving slave states disproportional numbers in Congress—the three-fifths clause reached into all three branches of government. The executive branch, for example: the electoral college selects the president, and states’ votes in the EC are determined by adding together the number of House seats and Senate seats a state has. Because the Southern states had an artificially inflated number of house seats, they likewise had a disproportionate number of votes to select the president. It’s no coincidence that 12 of the first 15 presidents either owned slaves or supported slavery. And because the president selects members of the Supreme Court, the three-fifths clause ensured that most nominees would likewise be supporters of slavery. Decisions like Dred Scott v. Sanford graphically demonstrate this.

Who cares? This is important because it shows that although Southerners were a minority population, they had a substantive hold on the federal government. But the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, and Lincoln’s election in 1860 threatened the crazy math of the three-fifths clause. The Republican platform explicitly pronounced a determination that slavery be restricted from all territories, which would mean that, if it were up to the new president, no new territories would have slaves; which meant no new slave states would enter the Union; which meant the fragile hold the “slave power” had over the federal government was destined to evaporate. Slavery had to expand or it would die—that was the conventional wisdom. But whether that was true or not, it was a fact that not expanding slavery meant slavery would die out over time. Lincoln figured 75 or so years. But Southerners were not going to wait to find out. A growing majority of free states might not wait for slavery’s evolutionary end; this growing majority might introduce a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery altogether, with or without compensation for slave owners.

This was the threat Southern slave-owners perceived in 1860 with Lincoln’s election: the destruction of slavery. It didn’t matter what Lincoln’s timetable was; Southerners were committed to the institution. And the reason for this is far beyond economics. They were committed to slavery because of its aspect of social control.


About Christopher Shelley

Christopher Shelley teaches American history and American Indian history at Portland Community College. He is fond of border collies, and bleeds Dodger-blue. Any and all opinions expressed here are those of the expressors themselves, and in no way represent the views of Portland Community College.
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