By: Alfred E. Talley, Historian.
Editor’s Note: The entire world is watching the 2016 US Presidential debates as the candidates argue over subjects like government policies, race, economic development, and taxation. Let’s take a look back in US history regarding the most significant debate about these same subjects.
The first national debates took place in 1787, when delegates from the new county met for the first time at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the Convention. The result of the Convention was the creation of the United States Constitution, placing the Convention among the most significant events in the history of the country. It laid the pathway to the country’s future.
At the same time that delegates were drafting the US Constitution promising “liberty and justice for all,” one of the most contentious disputes in the Convention was about the abolition of human slavery and its impact on the country’s economics, tax revenues and government representation.
The United States government decided to continue human slavery, but made a “compromise” about how enslaved Africans would be treated – the “Three-Fifths Compromise” that still affects American politics today.
The Three-Fifths Compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution) was an agreement between the Northern and Southern states to define African Americas as “three- fifths of a white person.” This was obviously derogatory as to their status as human beings, but the reasons for the this definition, as stated in the Constitution, were that of tax revenues and government representation.
Constitutional delegates opposed to human slavery (the North) did not want any enslaved Africans to be counted in the national census numbers because they did not have the right to vote. The slave states (the South), however, demanded just the opposite. They wanted enslaved Africans to be counted in the census so that their superior numbers would mean more federal representation. However, the South still rejected the idea for counting slaves for taxing purposes because of paying more in federal taxes. The end result was the “Three-Fifth Compromise.”
In 1790, the United States passed the first nationalization act granting citizenship only to “free whites.” Human slavery was a serious and contentious issue in the politics of the United States from the Revolutionary War until the Civil War. During the periods between the two, ten of the first twelve American Presidents owed and used enslaved Africans. The two exceptions were John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. The last U.S. President to own slaves was the twelfth president, Zachary Taylor.
In 1787, Congress prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, however, slavery flourished in the South primarily due to the cotton industry. Cotton became the main reason for the South’s needs for free, enslaved labor due the invention of the cotton gin, which made cotton production increase over five- fold. In 1861, eleven southern states broke from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Doing so led to the Civil War.
In 1863, President Lincoln freed the enslaved Africans in the rebellious southern states through the Emancipation Proclamation. In reality, however, at that time it was meaningless because all of the states affected by the Emancipation Proclamation were in the Confederacy and not in the Union.
Human slavery was not outlawed in the United States until 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although human slavery by law ended, a government institutionalized system of racial apartheid and discrimination (Jim Crow) was enacted into laws and practiced in some parts of the land until the Civil Rights Laws were passed in the mid-1960s. The affects of these government policies and laws regarding race, economics, and government representation still remain with us today.