At the time, Michael J. Klarman, a legal historian, noted in “The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution,” that “most elite statesmen believed that political representation ought to reflect wealth as well as population” and “several state constitutions provided for legislative apportionment based partly on wealth.” As Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina argued, the South’s “superior wealth” should have “its due weight in the government.” And northern delegates like Rufus King of Massachusetts sympathized with this view, confessing he “had always expected that as the southern states are the richest, they would not league themselves with the northern unless some respect were paid to their superior wealth.”
If equal state representation — which disregarded the size and wealth of each state — was the rule for the Senate, then proportional representation in the House had to factor in wealth, including the ownership of slaves, the major economic interest for the South. This led us to the three-fifths clause, based off a proposed “federal ratio” for taxation under the Articles, which ensured slave wealth representation. “The three-fifths clause,” the historian George William Van Cleve writes in “A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery Politics, and the Constitution in the early American Republic,” “was the explicitly chosen political-security foundation for the constitutional bargain protecting the political economy of the slave states.”
Even still, in its initial apportionment of the House, the committee responsible gave the eight northern states a modest seven-seat advantage over the five southern states, 36 to 29. More important, as the historian Jack N. Rakove explains in “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,” the committee left reapportionment up to the discretion of Congress. “The Atlantic States having the government in their own hands, may take care of their own interest,” explained Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, “by dealing out the right of Representation in safe proportions to the Western States.”
This was a problem for the Southerners, who were already unhappy with their initial minority status in the Legislature. Discretionary reapportionment gave the northern majority control over the political future of the region. As I said earlier, there was broad expectation of rapid growth in the South and its western lands, including among enslaved people. Would a northern majority account for slave growth in its reapportionment? Would it give equal political representation to the migrants of the Southwest? Or would it entrench itself against demographic change? “Those who have power in their hands,” warned George Mason of Virginia, “will not give it up while they can retain it.”
The solution was to take reapportionment out of the hands of Congress. “According to the present population of America,” Mason declared, “the northern part of it had a right to preponderate, and he could not deny it. But he wished it not to preponderate hereafter when the reason no longer continued.”
Northern delegates resisted, but they lost. “The apportionment of representatives in the future,” Klarman writes, “would be based on a census, which the Constitution would require Congress to undertake within three years of its first meeting and then again once every decade.” And slaves would be counted on the same three-fifths basis as they were for the initial apportionment of the House. To assuage a northern public that might object to representation for enslaved people, a Pennsylvania delegate, Gouverneur Morris, proposed a clause to tie representation to taxation, which had not yet been under discussion.
Instead of saying outright that enslaved people would count for representation, they would link representation to “direct taxes” (which no delegate expected the federal government to ever impose) and link that to a population that included slaves. “The delegates could pretend that they were not doing what they were actually doing,” the historian Robin L. Einhorn explains in “American Taxation, American Slavery.” She quotes delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania making this exact point: “Less umbrage would perhaps be taken” against “an admission of the slaves into the rule of representation, if it should be so expressed as to make them indirectly only an ingredient in the rule, by saying they should enter into the rule of taxation: and as representation was to be according to taxation, the end would be equally attained.”