A Tennessee Republican lawmaker wrongly suggested on Tuesday that the infamous three-fifths compromise was an effort by Northern states to curtail the power of Southern slave-owning states with the ultimate aim of ending slavery, when in fact historians say it was the opposite, a dehumanizing concession that had the impact of giving more power to slave-owning states.
In remarks on the Tennessee House floor, state Rep. Justin Lafferty claimed that “the three-fifths compromise was a direct effort to ensure that Southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country.”
“By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery,” he argued.
He also suggested that by the Northern states allying with the Southern states, in order to “defeat the British,” America “ended up biting a bitter, bitter pill that haunts us today. And we did it to lay the foundation for all this that we enjoy in this country,” seemingly referring to slavery.
Lafferty’s office did not respond to multiple messages from CNN seeking comment. During his speech, Lafferty admitted he hadn’t looked up the three-fifths compromise before delivering his remarks but that he was “rolling off of memory here.”
Lafferty’s speech, which ended with an exaltation of American exceptionalism and a call for legislators to rise above partisanship and “start talking to one another,” earned applause from his fellow House Republicans. Democrats, however, were incredulous over the slavery remarks, and historians with whom CNN spoke said his references were factually incorrect.
The three-fifths compromise was an agreement adopted in 1787 between Northern and Southern states that three-fifths, or 60%, of slave populations would be counted to determine representation in the House of Representatives and government finances. The clause was included in the Constitution.
According to Jack Rakove, a constitutional historian and Stanford professor, the compromise originated in 1783 and was proposed by James Madison as a formula for apportioning expenses among the states on the basis of population.
“The 3/5 clause was always seen as a concession to the slave states, not some kind of punishment or restriction. Slaves were not citizens or legal persons in any sense of the term; they would never enjoy political representation in any form,” Rakove said.
Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and early American studies at Yale, said the three-fifths compromise “had nothing to do with ending slavery” but “quite the opposite,” and that it gave the slave-holding South “an outsized representation in Congress, and enabled them to dominate the national government for decades.”
It enabled Southern slaveholding-states to count enslaved people who they considered to be “property” — people excluded from their polity — in their count for representation, according to Freeman.
“It embedded slavery into the Constitution, enabling Southerners to count their ‘property’ for representation — and thereby to dominate the government to preserve slavery and their hold on power. Yes, Southerners wanted to count the entirety of their enslaved population — their ‘property’ — in their count for representation. The fact that they got only 3/5 of that count hardly counts as a blow against slavery,” she said.
Rakove also told CNN that Lafferty’s two claims that abolitionist movements long existed in the Northern states and Europe and that the alliance between the two regions necessary to oppose the British in the war for independence was somehow tied to providing some protection for slavery were incorrect.
CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali, meanwhile, said Lafferty “managed to stand history on its head” with his speech and that the 3/5ths compromise was “an accommodation to the institution of slavery, not an attack.”
Lafferty’s speech came during House debate on a state education bill that would withhold funds to school systems that include concepts like critical race theory or systemic racism in their curriculums.
As the nation reckons with race, some Republican lawmakers have pushed for critical race theory, which explores how the history of inequality and racism in the US impacts American society today, to be restricted from being taught in schools, arguing that it’s divisive and un-American.
Democratic state Rep. Sam McKenzie said it was a “sad feeling” hearing Lafferty’s speech and that there was “nothing right about his conclusions.”
“And to hear the round of applause just spoke to the lack of knowledge of the people who are elected to write laws for our state,” McKenzie told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, adding, “It’s unfortunate that we don’t, as a legislature, don’t want to teach our kids an accurate and full display of what the history is that made this country a great country but with a lot, a lot of dark, dark days.”
McKenzie said he and Lafferty, whose districts both sit in Knox County, had a “very collegial conversation” about his remarks.
“We stand on two different sides of his conclusion, but his facts were correct. The South … did compromise at three-fifths, but that’s a horrible thing and it had nothing to do with ending slavery,” McKenzie said.
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, the chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said Lafferty’s comments were “alarming but the real insult was when the House Republicans clapped for him when he finished his diatribe.”
“What I appreciate about his soliloquy is the fact that he gave us his truth, his rationale as to why he was supporting the amendment to force teachers through law to whitewash historical events,” Parkinson said on Twitter.