Three-Fifths Compromise - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes (2024)

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise reached between the northern and southern states of the U.S. in 1787. The compromise was reached during a debate over whether or not slaves should be counted when a state was determining its total number of residents for legislative and tax purposes. If they were to be counted, then the next issue was to determine how they would be counted. It was ultimately decided that a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person. To explore this concept, consider the following three fifths compromise definition.

Definition of Three-Fifths Compromise


  1. The compromise that established that a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person, insofar as determining the total population of a state.


1787 Compromise reached during the Constitutional Convention

What was the Three-Fifths Compromise

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise that established that a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person when taking a census of a state’s overall population. The compromise was reached during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The issue of how slaves should be counted was important, since the total number of a state’s population would be used for determining legislative representation. It also had an effect for tax purposes.

The total population of each state is used to determine how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives for the ten years following each official census. The northern states pointed out that none of the slaves that were counted by the Census would be allowed to vote. Therefore, counting slaves as free citizens (or, as a “full” person) would have resulted in an uneven distribution of power favoring planters in the south. Those districts contained large populations, but only a fraction of their population was permitted to have an influence on elections.

This debate in the 1787 Constitutional Convention ran hot, as the southern states faced being underrepresented in Congress should their slaves be counted as “people” in the census, as the number of free citizens was less that those of the northern states. If they were successful in having slaves counted as in the census, their representation in the House of Representatives would soar far above that of the northern states.

Representatives of the North argued that, because slave owners of the South denied their slaves the right to vote – as well as all other civil rights – they should not be able to use the slaves to bolster their census numbers. The disparity in population was a valid issue, as far as representation in Congress was concerned, so the two sides came up with a3/5 compromise that would allow more equal representation. In this deal, each black person was to be counted as three-fifths (3/5) of a person in the official census.

The result gave Southern states about 30 percent more seats in Congress, and about 30 percent more electoral votes than they would have, had the slaves not been counted at all.

This compromise ushered in a new age of slavery by giving it a new life in politics. Even when new slaves were prohibited to be imported by law in 1808, the south continued to increase its electoral votes and overall political status by illegally adding slaves to its population. They were also continuing to illegally breed them.

The Constitution on the Three-Fifths Compromise

The Articles of Confederation based taxation off of each state’s land value. When the Articles were replaced by the Constitution in 1789, the Founders decided that the laws of taxation should be based on a state’s population, rather than the value of its land. This change is the perfect example of the Three-Fifths Compromise propelling slavery to the forefront of the argument.

Under the Articles, states were able to underestimate the value of their land so as to decrease the amount of taxes they had to pay on it. Northern states wanted to be able to count slaves due to the tax burden that would place on the south, and the reduction in taxes that the northerners would be able to enjoy. Southern states wanted to include slaves in the population for representation. They did not view the tax issue as a high priority the way the northern states did.

James Madison came up with the idea of counting three out of five slaves toward the population. This was a compromise of the ideas that the North and the South had come up with. The North wanted to count three out of four slaves for taxation, while the South wanted to count one out of four. All of the states, save for New Hampshire and Rhode Island, agreed to the counting of three out of five slaves toward each state’s population. However, because the rule was that there had to be a unanimous vote in order for an amendment to pass under the Articles of Confederation, the idea was shot down.

While drafting the Constitution in 1787, the Founding Fathers understood that in order for the tax code to be revised, then there had to be a decision made insofar as slavery and representation. Counting three out of five slaves toward the population was a decision that greatly benefited the Southern states. Before counting slaves toward the population, the Southern states occupied 38 percent of the House’s seats. After counting them, their representation shot up to 45 percent in 1790.

The issue insofar as who would be counted toward each state’s population was nothing short of an uproarious controversy. For example, the Three-Fifths Compromise is considered one of, if not the most, controversial topics in U.S history. This is due to the fact that it granted states the right to count their slave population as a whole as three-fifths of the total white population when attempting to allocate Representatives and determine issues related to taxes.

James Wilson and Roger Sherman came up with the idea for the Three-Fifths Compromise during the Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Convention took place from May to September of that year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its purpose to initially to revise the Articles of Confederation, though the Convention ended up becoming a meeting on how to create a new government, rather than fix the one that existed at that time.

George Washington was chosen to preside over the Convention, and the end result of the Convention was the creation of the Constitution. This made the Convention one of the most significant events in U.S. history.

Despite the fact that the Three-Fifths Compromise was proposed years before the Constitutional Convention, it was not adopted until the Convention because not all states had approved it, and the Articles of Confederation had required a unanimous vote in order to continue. Interestingly, the Three-Fifths Compromise did not actually give the south the population advantage they had hoped for. This was because the population of the northern states ended up growing faster than that of the southern states.

Even though the south had essentially dominated American politics prior to the Civil War, their power would soon peak and begin to fade out. By the time the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted in 1865, the Three-Fifths Compromise was considered to be obsolete.

It is important to remember, however, that the Three-Fifths Compromise did not advocate for slavery, despite the behavior of certain southern states after its inception. Despite the fact that slaves were considered property in the south, the Constitution acknowledged slaves as people.

Three-Fifths Compromise Example in the Dred Scott Case

Perhaps the most notable example of the Three-Fifths Compromise being challenged before the court was in the Dred Scott case. Scott was born into slavery in or around 1800. Two years after Scott’s master, Peter Blow, passed away, Scott was bought by Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon, who then took Scott to the free state of Illinois. In 1836, Emerson moved to Wisconsin and brought Scott with him. While there, Scott met Harriet Robinson, a fellow slave whom he ultimately married. Upon their marriage, Harriet’s ownership was transferred to Emerson.

The fact that Scott had lived for an extended period of time in both Illinois and Wisconsin – free states – gave Scott the legal standing to sue for his freedom. However, he never did make the claim, either because he was unaware of his rights or because he was happy with Emerson as his master. It was not until Emerson’s death in 1843 that Scott sought freedom for himself and his wife.

First, Scott offered to buy his freedom from Emerson’s wife for $300, but she refused the offer. Scott then decided to seek his freedom through the court system. Scott’s case went to trial in June of 1847, but he lost on the technicality that he could not prove that Emerson’s widow owned him and his wife. The Missouri Supreme Court decided the following year that Scott should be granted a retrial.

At the 1850 retrial, the St. Louis Circuit Court decided that Scott and his wife should be free. Two years later, however, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision. Scott and his lawyers brought the case to federal court, and in 1854 the Circuit Court upheld the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision. Scott then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court’s justices were from proslavery backgrounds. However, it is believed that if the case had gone directly from the state supreme court to the federal supreme court, then the federal court would have probably upheld the state’s ruling just the same. This is because the federal court would have likely cited the Three-Fifths Compromise, which gave states the authority to determine whether or not slaves could be considered equal residents in their state.

Scott sealed his fate, however, by claiming that he and the defendant in the case – Emerson’s brother-in-law, John Sanford – were citizens of different states. The Supreme Court then had to decide whether it had the jurisdiction to try the case, and whether Scott was, in fact, a citizen at all.

The Court made its decision in March of 1857 – 10 years after Scott initially went to trial for his freedom. In the decision, the Court wrote that because Scott was black, then he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The decision went on to declare the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – legislation that restricted slavery in certain areas – to be unconstitutional. Per the Court, Scott was to remain a slave.

However, the story has a somewhat happier ending in that Blow’s sons, who had helped Scott with his legal fees over the years, ended up purchasing Scott and his wife and setting them free. Unfortunately, Scott’s freedom was short-lived, as he passed away nine months later.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Legislation – A law, or body of laws, enacted by a government.
Three-Fifths Compromise - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes (2024)


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