WASHINGTON – An African-American pastor running for the U.S. Senate incorrectly argued that the so-called three-fifths clause in the original Constitution was crafted with the intention of abolishing slavery.
Bishop E. W. Jackson, who has filed as a Republican candidate for Virginia's open Senate seat in 2012, argued in a statement that "the 3/5ths clause was an anti-slavery amendment. Its purpose was to limit the voting power of slave holding states."
That's a remarkably inaccurate interpretation of an important aspect of American history. The theory was floated this year by conspiracy talk show host Glenn Beck, and subsequently debunked by historians.
Rick Beeman, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explained that the clause was insisted upon by Southern states, which had higher slave populations, in order to boost their representation in Congress. People of African descent had no rights, including voting rights, either way.
"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," Beeman told Media Matters. "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."
In his book, America's Constitution: A Biography, Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar took on the theory Jackson and others have espoused.
"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," Amar wrote, explaining that the three-fifths clause encouraged states to hold -- and import -- slaves because it would have granted them more representation and therefore more influence.
The context of Jackson's statement was to bash President Barack Obama for attending an Easter service during which a pastor said, "They tried to write me off as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. But I am here, and I am saying I am not going to let anybody stop me from being what God wants me to be."