What Was the Three-Fifths Compromise?

(Last Updated On: November 15, 2019)
What Was the Three-Fifths Compromise?

The Three-Fifths Compromise was an agreement reached among state delegates during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It settled a contentious debate about if and how slaves should be counted when determining a state’s total population. Ultimately, the solution was to count three out of every five slaves as people. This decision would have lasting effects on American history, as it shifted more political power to the slave-holding southern states.

Historical Background

The Three-Fifths Compromise was one of many agreements reached at the Constitutional Convention, but the three-fifths value actually has its origin in a proposed amendment to the Articles of Confederation in 1783. At the time, taxes were apportioned based on land values, which led to states undervaluing their land. So a committee recommended that state taxes should be based on population instead. 

But the southern states were strongly against this idea since the formula would include slaves, who were viewed not as humans, but property. So several compromises were proposed. Some argued only half the slave population should be counted. Others recommended three-fourths. Ultimately, the Continental Congress adopted James Madison’s idea of three-fifths. The amendment would fail, however, not receiving the required unanimous approval to pass.

Fast forward a few years to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when delegations from each state met to ultimately form a new government. After some debate as to what the legislative branch of government would look like, the delegates finally decided that representation in the lower house of Congress would be based on population (see: What Was the Great Compromise?).

The decision to have proportional representation would once again bring up the issue of slavery. Delegates from slave states argued that slaves should be counted as people when determining representation, but as property when it came to taxes. Delegates from northern states pretty much argued the opposite. Since slaves could not vote, they asserted, only free persons should be counted when determining legislative representation.

The Three-Fifths Compromise 

It quickly became clear that some sort of compromise between the two sides would have to be made. To help settle the issue, Madison’s proposal from a few years prior was once again brought to the table. And ultimately, the delegates were able to find accord with the Three-Fifths Compromise. Under this agreement, only three-fifths of the slave population would count when determining BOTH legislative representation and taxation. Slave states would lose out on some representation, but would also receive a lower tax burden. And this was acceptable to northern states.

The Three-Fifths Compromise can be found in the US Constitution, under Article I, Section 2, Clause 3:

“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.”


The Three-Fifths Compromise would signal a shift in political power towards the slave states of the south. When the Continental Congress first met, the 5 primary slave states accounted for about 38% of the legislative body. In 1790, when the first US Congress met, these states had nearly 45% of the seats. This disproportionate representation would have major impacts on the political climate of the country until at least the Civil War.

Take 1812 as an example. At the time, slave states accounted for 76 of the 143 seats in the House of Representatives. If seats were assigned based only on free populations, that number would have been 59. Thus, slave states were able to strongly influence presidential elections, House bills, and the Supreme Court. This also allowed the number of slave and free states to remain relatively equal until the mid-19th century.

After the Civil War, Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment repealed the compromise. And while former slave states did everything they could to continue disenfranchising their black citizens, they all-the-while benefited from a population that was now fully counted when determining representation. As such, southern states would gain even more voting power, with white Southern Democrats exercising great influence in Congress and the Electoral College until the 1960s.

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.