Did the Founders Do More than Lincoln to End Slavery?

By John A. O'Brien

Denver, CO

Wednesday, July 21, 2021



Claims are being made in state legislative debates that the three-fifths clause in the US Constitution was actually the plan of the Founders to end slavery. Until the adoption of the 13th amendment in 1865, the census counted enslaved people as only 3/5ths of a person. Tennessee State Rep. Justin Lafferty was speaking last month on how educators should be restricted in what they teach about racism in American history because they did not understand the original context of the Constitution as he interpreted it. “By limiting the number of population in the [census] count,” Lafferty said, “[the Founders] specifically limited the number of representatives who would be available in the slave-holding states and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery. Well before Abraham Lincoln. Well before the Civil War." Black legislators were shocked by this assertion and by the outburst of applause it brought from the conservative chamber. (“GOP lawmaker: Three-Fifths Compromise was to end slavery,” Kimberlee Kruesi, Associated Press, May 6, 2021).


Conservative legislators in other states have also raised alternative views of the purpose for blatant discrimination in the Constitution. Colorado Rep. Ron Hanks declared that the so-called “'three-fifths compromise’ was not impugning anybody’s humanity.” Oregon State Sen. Dennis Linthicum claimed that “the three-fifths vote was actually to eliminate the overwhelming influence the slave states would have in representative government.” This distinction has been made in recent years, not by historians, but by conservative television commentators. There is no evidence in the records of the Constitutional Convention that the clause was thought to be a step toward ending slavery. Indeed, many felt it dehumanized the black population for the purposes of continuing the practice of enslavement. Why is it being portrayed so differently today?


In recent months, bills have been introduced in several state legislatures to regulate the teaching of racism and its significance in American history. They fear such curricula will distort the “true intentions” of revolutionary patriots who worked from the very beginning to create a more just society. But the record is more troubling. Representatives at the Constitutional Convention never discussed the immorality of slavery. It was accepted as the social condition of the era. Sixty years later, the three-fifths clause emboldened the Supreme Court to rule in the case of Dred Scott that Black people had no rights in this country under the Constitution, and Congress had no right to say otherwise..


Abraham Lincoln refuted this view in his Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860. He gave powerful historically-based arguments after meticulous research into the intentions of the Founders regarding slavery. He went beyond the record of the convention to examine the private musings and legislative votes of the Founders. He argued that while the Founders did not eliminate or condemn slavery in 1789, they created a governing document that took the Declaration’s principle of freedom and equal opportunity and made it attainable under the new government. At Cooper Union, Lincoln used the words and acts of the Founders themselves to show they never endorsed slavery nor gave Americans the right to vote to deny freedom to other people, even those of African descent.


Lincoln’s presentation reviewed the decisions of the Founders as they authorized limitations on slavery in the Northwest territories, Louisiana Purchase, Mississippi Territory and in the 1820 Missouri Compromise (when two Founders still voted). He confirmed that the circumstances of 1789 forced an accommodation to the existence of slavery, but with a clear understanding left by 23 (including southerners) of the 39 signers of the Constitution, that the federal government retained the right to limit the expansion of slavery in the expectation of its ultimate extinction. The three-fifths clause was a necessary compromise to create a new nation. But it effectively delayed the eventual demise of slavery. If they did not hobble the institution, Lincoln asserted that the Founders had given Congress the authority to limit slavery as the country grew.

The story of America is not static. We are still learning of significant people and events that are omitted in most textbooks. Many people still recall how stunned they were when first learning of our internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent in the 1940s; the many white supremacist race massacres such as Black Wall Street in Tulsa; the extent of lynching and the power of the Ku Klux Klan until late in the 20th Century; and the persistence of Holocaust deniers and related attacks on synagogues. New information is still being developed as scholars pursue suppressed themes in history. Journalist David Graham described efforts to stop new findings as attempting to use “history as a bludgeon without regard to context, logic, or proportionality” (“The Rise of Anti-history,” Atlantic Monthly, July 9, 2021). Proposed laws to stifle teaching about the importance of ethnic and gender struggle in our history depend on using out of context fact-fragments, like the new three-fifths clause claims, to undercut a richer discussion of the issues that still demand attention today.


The legislators who invent a positive view of the three-fifths clause seem bent on enforcing a version of American history that limits the importance that race played in its creation. There is no scholarly support for these views. Lincoln appreciated the importance of acting with a deeper knowledge of our history, with its imperfections. He likely would have scorned the disjointed arguments now being made as he did when Stephen Douglas campaigned by appealing to outright racial prejudice. Lincoln used the messy facts of our history as the basis for a plan to improve our future. Only when we continue to strive to live up to our founding purpose, Lincoln said, would we have a country worth saving.