This past Tuesday marked 231st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Every year this date should be celebrated by everyone because of the most remarkable nature of that document, which was responsible for this country becoming the freest and wealthiest that ever existed. Instead the Constitution is held in such ill regard by so many simply because of the indoctrination they received in college, high school, the media, and from friends. The most common insult hurled at the Constitution is that it is a racist document with the Three-Fifths Compromise as the most damning evidence. Frederick Douglass debunked that claim back in 1860 when he gave this speech before the Glasgow Emancipation Society.
In this quote he states the purpose of his speech was to refute the false claim that the Constitution is a proslavery document:
The very eloquent lecturer at the City Hall doubtless felt some embarrassment from the fact that he had literally to give the Constitution a pro-slavery interpretation; because upon its face it of itself conveys no such meaning, but a very opposite meaning. He thus sums up what he calls the slaveholding provisions of the Constitution. I quote his own words: — “Article 1, section 9, provides for the continuance of the African slave trade for the 20 years, after the adoption of the Constitution. Art. 4, section 9, provides for the recovery from the other States of fugitive slaves. Art. 1, section 2, gives the slave States a representation of the three-fifths of all the slave population; and Art. 1, section 8, requires the President to use the military, naval, ordnance, and militia resources of the entire country for the suppression of slave insurrection, in the same manner as he would employ them to repel invasion.
In this next quote he discredits the claim that the Three-Fifths Compromise is racist. He notes that it only applies to slaves, not free blacks, and that is was an incentive for freeing slaves.
It is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation. A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.
Frederick Douglass stated in this quote that the Constitution abolishing the slave trade 20 years after ratification was meant to end slavery. .
Men, at that time, both in England and in America, looked upon the slave trade as the life of slavery. The abolition of the slave trade was supposed to be the certain death of slavery. Cut off the stream, and the pond will dry up, was the common notion at the time.
He also points out that the drafters of the Constitution believed that slavery was a dying institution. At the time of the drafting of the Constitution slavery was not working economically and was collapsing. It was the invention of the Cotton Gin that made slavery work economically and extended that despicable institution. It was not invented until after the ratification of the Constitution. He notes that abolishing the slave trade would have hastened slavery’s demise.
All regarded slavery as an expiring and doomed system, destined to speedily disappear from the country. But, again, it should be remembered that this very provision, if made to refer to the African slave trade at all, makes the Constitution anti-slavery rather than for slavery; for it says to the slave States, the price you will have to pay for coming into the American Union is, that the slave trade, which you would carry on indefinitely out of the Union, shall be put an end to in twenty years if you come into the Union. Secondly, if it does apply, it expired by its own limitation more than fifty years ago. Thirdly, it is anti-slavery, because it looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity. Fourthly, it showed that the intentions of the framers of the Constitution were good, not bad.
Frederick Douglass answers the claim that the framers of the Constitution wrote a proslavery and racist document that did not extend its benefits and protections to those of color.
But it has been said that Negroes are not included within the benefits sought under this declaration. This is said by the slaveholders in America — it is said by the City Hall orator — but it is not said by the Constitution itself. Its language is “we the people;” not we the white people, not even we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, but we the people; not we the horses, sheep, and swine, and wheel-barrows, but we the people, we the human inhabitants; and, if Negroes are people, they are included in the benefits for which the Constitution of America was ordained and established. But how dare any man who pretends to be a friend to the Negro thus gratuitously concede away what the Negro has a right to claim under the Constitution? Why should such friends invent new arguments to increase the hopelessness of his bondage? This, I undertake to say, as the conclusion of the whole matter, that the constitutionality of slavery can be made out only by disregarding the plain and common-sense reading of the Constitution itself; by discrediting and casting away as worthless the most beneficent rules of legal interpretation; by ruling the Negro outside of these beneficent rules; by claiming that the Constitution does not mean what it says, and that it says what it does not mean; by disregarding the written Constitution, and interpreting it in the light of a secret understanding
The Constitution would not have been completed or ratified without the Three-Fifths Compromise, resulting in either a split into two countries or a break up into many smaller countries. Would the slaves have fared better? Frederick Douglass answers that question here:
My argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding States, and withdraw it from the power in the Northern States which is opposed to slavery.
Although odious on the surface, you can see from the quote that the Three-Fifths Compromise was in the long run meant to be a positive.