Thursday, December 31, 2009

Anatomy of a Myth II – The Racist Constitution.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was taught that the Constitution counted black people as 3/5ths of white people. It was just something we were told was due to the racism of the times. That’s how it was in those unenlightened days, after all, what could you expect from a bunch of rich white slave owners? Those founders may have been learned wise men, but they were also flaming racists, or so we were told. Fortunately for the Constitution and the Founders, the 3/5ths language in Article 1, Section 2 is not what we were taught.

Critics use the 3/5ths enumeration language to justify all sorts of anti-founder, anti-American, sentiment. If the Constitution itself can be viewed as a racist document, does that not cast doubt on the holiness of the whole enterprise of these United States? Isn’t that what some have preached for years? Does that not sound familiar? There’s only one problem with this argument; the premise is flawed because the 3/5ths language in Article 1, Section 2 is not about race or racism.

Oh, I’m not claiming that racism didn’t exist among the founders and in colonial America. I can’t imagine an economy based on forced African labor as anything but racist. But the Constitution, and in particular the 3/5ths provision in Article I, Section 2 studiously avoids that issue. The framers were pretty aware that history would be looking over their shoulder and accordingly chose language that would not be harshly viewed by future generations. They were doing what they could, in their way, to plot a course in the direction of their founding dream of a society in which “all men were created equal”, and were treated that way.

So, what about that 3/5ths thing; what does it really say in Article I, Section 2? The founders enumerated non-free Persons as 3/5ths of a free Person. In other words, it was about slavery not race. Free blacks, of which there were many by 1787, were enumerated exactly as free whites. Moreover, the constitution refers to all men, free and “other” as “Persons”. This is no accident. Incidentally, white slaves would have been enumerated exactly as black slaves, at 3/5ths. That’s right, there were occasional white slaves too!

So why the distinction and the 3/5ths thing in the first place? Madison explains in Federalist #54 that enumeration served two purposes in the constitution: representation and taxation. The more Persons you had, the more you were taxed and the more representatives you could send to the federal govt. Slaves didn’t pay taxes or vote but did swell the population of a state, therefore the 3/5ths thing was arrived at as a compromise for calculating taxes and representatives. Of course, free blacks were fully enumerated before they could vote; just like women.

Article 1, Section 2 never mentions race or slaves, only “free Persons”, “Indians”, and “other Persons”. Indians, who also paid no taxes and couldn’t vote, were enumerated as “zeros” presumably because they didn’t contribute economically like slaves did. Again, none of this precludes the reality of racism among the people of the time, but it does point out the lack of a racial aspect to Article 1, Section 2.

Thomas Sowell, one of my favorite economists, and incidentally a black man, tells a story in one of his books where he was questioning a professor and asked where slavery came from. The professor responded that that was the wrong question. The right question was, where did freedom come from, because slavery was woven into the human fabric from the outset; it is only in modern times that freedom has become the norm. We have abolitionists and philosophers around the world to thank for the freedom that we all enjoy today. Among them were the wise men who wrote our founding documents and made it clear, if you look closely, where they expected us to end-up.

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