Historian: Beck's Defense Of Three-Fifths Clause “Completely Wrong”

According to experts, Glenn Beck's claim that the Founding Fathers included the three-fifths clause in the Constitution as a “way to take a step to abolish slavery” is incorrect. Indeed, when asked about Beck's statement, University of Pennsylvania history professor Rick Beeman wrote: “My Goodness -- Glenn Beck got it completely wrong.”

Beck Defends Three-Fifths Clause

Beck: Three-Fifths Clause “Was A Way To Take A Step To Abolish Slavery.” Discussing Republicans' decision not to allow parts of the Constitution that had been superseded by constitutional amendment to be read during a congressional session, Beck said:

BECK: Yesterday -- or was it today? I don't even know. It was yesterday that they read the Constitution in Congress. It was today? Read the Constitution in Congress. And it was -- no, it was -- they edited the Constitution, not for time, but because they didn't want to offend anyone. And parts of it were outdated. You got to be kidding me. This, we're getting from the Republicans. Hmm. Parts of it are outdated and parts of it are offensive.

The three-fifths clause was offensive, and so they didn't do it. This shows such a -- either lack of understanding of our history, who the Founders were, what the Constitution says, or it is just cowardice in Washington. Three-fifths clause. African-Americans: three-fifths in the South, three-fifths of a human being. That's an outrage, unless you know why they put that in there. They put that in there because if slaves in the South were counted as full human beings, they could never abolish slavery. They would never be able to do it. It was a time bomb.

Progressives should love that. It was a way to take a step to abolish slavery. It is a tremendous story about our Founders, about the genius of the Constitution -- but that might offend some people, so they skipped it. They skipped it. That's offensive to me. [Fox News' Glenn Beck, 1/6/10]

Experts Disagree With The Claim That Three-Fifths Clause Was Anti-Slavery

Beeman: “My Goodness -- Glenn Beck Got It Completely Wrong.” In response to a Media Matters email about Beck's comments, Beeman wrote:

My goodness -- Glenn Beck got it completely wrong. They put [the three-fifths clause] there because delegates from the Southern states would never have agreed to the Constitution unless some weight was given to their slave populations in the apportionment of representation. They wanted slaves counted 100%, but when they saw that they could not get that, they settled for 3/5. The practical effect of that, far from making easier to abolish slavery, made it more difficult. It gave added weight to southern political power in Congress, it inflated Southern power in the apportioning of electoral votes, which led to a succession of Southern presidents. Ironically, the best thing that could have been done with respect to making it easier to abolish slavery would have been to have given slaves NO weight in the apportioning of representation.

Beck's comments are so depressingly typical of those who cite the Constitution to defend their views without having any understanding of the Constitution's history [emphasis added].

Beeman: Beck's Claim Is “Fundamentally Wrong.” During a subsequent phone interview with Media Matters, Beeman also said of Beck's comment:

That was where Beck was fundamentally wrong. Going as far as giving slaves a status of three-fifths of a person gave the South far more power because slaves were not treated as full citizens. Slaves did not have any rights at all, including voting rights.

Law Professor Amar: Nineteenth Century Abolitionists Defended Three-Fifths Clause, But Their Argument Is Wrong. Yale University professor Akhil Reed Amar, who teaches constitutional law, wrote in his book, America's Constitution: A Biography:

In any event, the Constitution as drafted and ratified committed the new nation to perpetually credit slavery in the apportionment process. Confronting this harsh constitutional calculus, some antebellum antislavery leaders sought to construe three-fifths as a moral victory of sorts. On this view, anything less than five-fifths was an acknowledgment that slavery was constitutionally disfavored. The document's pointed refusal to use the S-word in the apportionment formula and elsewhere further evidenced the document's implicit antislavery stance, in the eyes of these apologists. Some theorists went so far as to claim that the Article I formula actually encouraged abolition: a state that freed its slaves could increase its share of the House by counting its blacks at five-fifths, thus avoiding the two-fifths slavery penalty.

This clever argument blinked the fact that states with large slave populations were hardly inclined to free slaves while encouraging freedmen to remain within the state as valued citizens. Dreams and schemes of colonization accompanied most serious proposals for widespread abolition. If emigration followed emancipation, a state would not rise from three to five-fifths, but rather would sink to zero-fifths as freedmen moved out. Contrary to apologists' rosy mathematics, a slave state would thus likely wield less congressional clout after emancipation. [Page 90, America's Constitution (2005), accessed 01/07/2011]

Yale Constitutional Expert: Three-Fifths Clause Gave South An Extra Incentive To Import Slaves

Amar: Because Of Three-Fifths Clause, “The More Slaves The Deep South Could Import ... The More Seats It Would Earn In The American Congress.” From America's Constitution:

Once we envision the possibility of black bodies crossing borders, the extreme viciousness of the three-fifths clause comes violently into view. The more slaves the Deep South could import from the African continent -- innocents born in freedom and kidnapped across an ocean to be sold on auction blocks -- the more seats it would earn in the American Congress.


To make matters worse, despite the new Congress's general Article I, section 8 power over international commerce, section 9 barred Congress from ending the international slave trade before 1808. By that time, the Deep South hoped to have enough extra muscle in Congress, based on white migration and slave importation, to thwart any possible antislavery constitutional amendments and perhaps even to weaken any proposed ban on further slave importation. Unlike every other clause in the entire Constitution, the 1808 date itself was exempt from constitutional amendment under Article V. [Pages 90-91, America's Constitution (2005), accessed 01/07/2011]