Perhaps more so than Madison wanted, as Wilentz maintains.
But Madison’s putative intentions are all that matters to Wilentz.
The three-fifths clause, which states that three-fifths of “all other persons” (i.e.
slaves) will be counted for both taxation and representation, was a major boon to the slave states.
On Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders told his audience at Liberty University that the United States “in many ways was created” as a nation “from way back on racist principles.” Not everyone agreed.
The historian Sean Wilentz took to to write that Bernie Sanders—and a lot of his colleagues—have it all wrong about the founding of the United States.But what it meant was embarrassment—and damage control.Domestic and foreign critics had lambasted Americans for their hypocrisy in calling themselves a beacon to human freedom while only a few states moved on the slavery question.He put the defense of the proslavery clauses in the voice of a Virginian and then called them “a little strained,” but just.When we see things like this in today’s politics, we call it damage control.The shaping policies of the early republic were proslavery because the federal government was controlled by southern expansionists like Jefferson and Jackson, who saw Africans as a captive nation, a fifth column just waiting to be liberated (again) by the British.The refusal to mention slavery as property or anything else in the Constitution means something.I give Madison credit for a kind of honesty about his ambivalence, at least for those who could read between the lines—but this is far from the bold antislavery stand Wilentz would have us see in Madison’s words.Wilentz is an astute student of politics, and has often praised pragmatism in the figures he admires.He actually argued that the three-fifths clause was a good example of how the Constitution would lead to good government—by protecting property.He looked forward to the honest census that would result from slaves and other people being both taxed and represented.