Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A fraction of a person

Group portrait, circa 1870s

Regular visitors to my blog know that among my interests are vintage photography and U.S. history, both focused on the 19th century.
In my collection is this 1870s photograph of five people taken outside a cabin of some kind, perhaps a cookhouse or living quarters, presumably down South. I picked it up years ago at a flea market. I think I paid a buck or two for it.

When this country was in its infancy, Northern and Southern states vied with each other over how they would be represented in the House of Representatives and over the tax burden their residents would bear.
Whichever region held sway in Congress stood a better chance of pushing through its agenda, so this fight over representation was a critical, contentious issue.

The North wanted only free whites to be tallied. The South wanted its slaves to be counted, even though they were barred from voting (among many other things).

Eventually, a middle ground was reached and a deal was struck in 1787.
For representation and taxation purposes, each black would be counted as three-fifths of a person -- a free white person. This agreement was called the Three-fifths Compromise.
It was written into the Constitution and would be the law of the land until after the Civil War.

Rendering a human being into three-fifths is a difficult concept for me to visualize, not to mention that it is absurd.
So this photograph helps me to understand quite graphically the mindset of the free, white, well-to-do men who molded this nation.

Five people posing in their Sunday best. But all their hopes, fears, victories and setbacks distilled into just three people in the minds of many, as matter-of-factly as the simple act of taking this photograph.


Tom said...

There is a problem with your analysis in this post.

You seem to be preferring that blacks in the 18th Century be counted as "whole persons", for purposes of power calculations, which would have given more clout to the South and slave owners.

The Three-Fifths Compromise was not an evaluation of anybody's intrinsic value as a human being.

The Constitution was written to create a country, free from the authority of King George of England. The Constitution did not, and could not have, ended slavery. Adams and Jefferson would later regret that provisions were not written in to end slavery in short order; but we should not look upon the Three-Fifths Compromise as a hate-filled, racist slap at African Americans.

As you note, the Southern slave owners were the ones who wanted their slaves to be counted as equivalent to whites. Had that happened, that would not have empowered the slaves. It would have given greater power to their masters.

Michael said...

Hi Tom,

Many thanks for your reply. In considering the Three-fifths Compromise, I was looking at it through modern eyes rather than considering the full context in which it was devised.
I should know better than that because, ironically, I majored in history in college.

Part of my reaction was based on my revulsion to slavery, as it existed then and as it exists now in far too many places in the world.
Still, painful as it may be, facts have to be weighed as objectively as possible.

Thanks again for your comment, and all the best to you in 2007 (and here's hoping that you find time for Blogmandu!).