Norman Spencer: Political compromises in Constitution

Published: 7/13/2021 2:43:04 PM

The July 4 weekend presented 20 statewide re-creations of Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 pro-abolition speech in Rochester, New York. His remarkable oration included details of the horrors and hypocrisy forced upon slaves by America’s pro-slavery economic, religious and political interests.

It is significant that Douglass’s speech and the growing American abolition movement came after the British Parliament’s vote in 1833 to gradually eliminate slavery in its colonies. By 1843, slavery in the United Kingdom’s colonies was fully outlawed.

But I am writing to comment on two announcements of Douglass’s speech re-enactments that I heard in the media, because each had included the frequent and misleading interpretation that our Constitution includes a blatant racial prejudice. That accusation derives from an unawareness of the disagreement over Article I, Section 2 which reads in part “... direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the . . . States . . . according to their Numbers . . . which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons . . . three fifths of all other Persons.”

The issue was that the abolitionist Northern states wanted slaves to be counted fully along with “free Persons,” whereas the Southern states sought to reduce their taxes by the manipulation of omitting slaves from their “states’ numbers.” To avoid failure of the vote by this paralyzing partisanship, the debaters compromised with the ⅗ ratio. It wasn’t a racial measurement. (Two other political compromises were written into the Constitution.)

Norman Spencer

Florence




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