The Great Compromise of the United States Constitution: What is the the 3/5 Compromise?

The Great Compromise of the United States Constitution: What is the the 3/5 Compromise?
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The Great Compromise of the United States Constitution

The Problem: The first major hurdle delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to clear was the question of representation.

The New Jersey Plan: The New Jersey Plan, proposed by William Paterson, favored smaller states and called for a unicameral legislature with an equal number of representatives per state.

The Virginia Plan: The Virginia Plan, proposed by Edmund Randolph, favored larger states and proposed a bicameral legislature with representation based on population or money contributed.

The Solution: Small states feared that if the Virginia Plan passed they would have no power. Large states felt that representation in a republic should provide equal representation for all people. The debate raged and threatened to derail the convention. Finally, Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a compromise, creating a bicameral legislature with one house basing representation on population and the other house providing equal representation by states.

The 3/5 Compromise

Contention arose once again over representation, this time involving slaves.

The Problem: Should states count slaves as part of their population for representation purposes?

Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free citizens be counted for purposes of representation. After all, they argued, slave owners considered their slaves as property. Southern delegates feared that if the House of Representatives were controlled by free states then they would be powerless to prevent the federal government from abolishing slavery. Although most of the Founding Fathers were opposed to slavery, they understood that in order for the Constitution to be ratified they could not abolish it. They also understood that in order for the southern states to ratify the Constitution they needed to assuage their fears regarding representation.


The Solution: Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 states that popular representation will be formulated by counting each free citizen as one person and each slave as 3/5 of a person. Uninformed, disingenuous activists use the 3/5 compromise as grounds for defying the Constitution and demeaning those who wrote it, claiming the Founding Fathers only considered slaves as 3/5 human. What they fail to acknowledge is that the 3/5 compromise was intended to limit representation for slave states and prevent the South from having an overwhelming majority in The House of Representatives. Delegates from free states put in place the mechanism necessary for abolishing the evil practice. The thirteenth and fourteenth amendments made the 3/5 Compromise moot.

Other Compromises

Problem: Slavery would rear its ugly head once again. Northern abolitionists wanted the importation of slaves banned in the Constitution, hoping that by doing so, slavery would prove unprofitable and die out. Southern delegates insisted that the slave trade was vital to the economic development of the South.

Solution: Congress was given power to ban the slave trade after 1808. The issue of slavery, however, would not be resolved until the Civil War.

Problem: Northerners and Southerners disagreed on tarrifs. The South’s economy was dependent on foreign trade whereas the North wanted protection from foreign competition in order to sell their goods.

Solution: The federal government can tax imports but not exports.

Problem: Some delegates believed the president should be elected directly; others believed that the people could not be trusted with such an important decision, calling instead for election by state legislatures.

Solution: The Constitution established the Electoral College which elects the president. The people’s vote determines who votes in the Electoral College.

This post is part of the series: Background to the United States Constitution

Get the background on our nation’s most important document.

  1. Facts about the United States Constitution
  2. The Purpose of the Constitution: Why was the United States Constitution Created?
  3. Great Compromises of the United States Constitution
  4. Understanding the Emancipation Proclamation