Tuesday, December 12, 2006
A fraction of a person
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.