Getting to Union

Navigating Differences in the Constitutional Convention

Part III. Creating Space to Address Issues Built Trust Among the Delegates.
This Made it Possible to Work Through Big Problems Together.

Part III. Step 3. Three-Fifths Compromise


As the Convention debated representation in the national legislature, they realized that if representation was based on population and enslaved people were fully counted in the population, it would greatly advantage the Southern States in Congress. Small states did not want this configuration.

To solve this impasse, James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, introduced the three-fifths formulation for counting slaves in the population. This formula was already accepted by the states under the Article of Confederation for tax-raising powers. Since the idea of representation was linked in the delegates’ minds to the idea of consenting to tax (remember ‘no taxation without representation!’) that was why Wilson hoped that this formula for representation would prove acceptable to the delegates.

On June 13 of the Convention, the delegates adopted a clause indicating only three-fifths of the enslaved population would be included in the population count. This secured the principle of basing representation in the national legislature on population.

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Optional: Explore Further

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Explore June 11 in Convention when James Wilson introduced the Three-Fifths Clause to the Committee of the Whole. 

Prepare for Class Discussion

On your own paper, respond to the question below.

  1. How did the process of agreeing to rules to explore issues make it possible to find a compromise for counting enslaved persons?
  2. Why was this compromise only possible later in the Convention?


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