If there is one Federalist Paper that would cause modern readers to cringe, it is probably Federalist 54. In this essay. Madison discussed the apportionment of members of the House of Representative, in particular the notion that apportionment should be based on population. Most of the paper is focused specifically on the three-fifths clause. Madison defended the compromise, though he wrote not in his own voice but rather as “one of our Southern brethren.” This signals how uncomfortable Madison was with the topic of the compromise and with slavery in general. Frankly, it’s a bit uncomfortable reading some of the tortured logic.
We should probably back up a bit and discuss the three-fifths clause, because it has largely been misrepresented. It is a result of a compromise between northern and southern delegates. Southerners wanted slaves to count fully because it would increase the number of representatives allotted to slave-holding states. On the other hand, northern delegates wanted the slaves not to count at all. As they saw it, slaves were not free citizens, and considered as mere property by their masters. Why should this “property” count towards population and therefore benefit the slave states? The three-fifths compromise was therefore an attempt to split the difference between the two sides. It does not indicate that slaves were actually considered to be 3/5 of a human being.
Madison, speaking as the southern brethren, rebutted the idea that slaves should not be counted for apportionment purposes because they were ineligible to vote. Madison pointed out that franchise requirements were different in the various states; therefore this criticism doesn’t hold much weight.
“This objection is repelled by a single abservation. It is a fundamental principle of the proposed Constitution, that as the aggregate number of representatives allotted to the several States is to be determined by a federal rule, founded on the aggregate number of inhabitants, so the right of choosing this allotted number in each State is to be exercised by such part of the inhabitants as the State itself may designate. The qualifications on which the right of suffrage depend are not, perhaps, the same in any two States. In some of the States the difference is very material. In every State, a certain proportion of inhabitants are deprived of this right by the constitution of the State, who will be included in the census by which the federal Constitution apportions the representatives. In this point of view the Southern States might retort the complaint, by insisting that the principle laid down by the convention required that no regard should be had to the policy of particular States towards their own inhabitants; and consequently, that the slaves, as inhabitants, should have been admitted into the census according to their full number, in like manner with other inhabitants, who, by the policy of other States, are not admitted to all the rights of citizens. A rigorous adherence, however, to this principle, is waived by those who would be gainers by it. All that they ask is that equal moderation be shown on the other side. Let the case of the slaves be considered, as it is in truth, a peculiar one. Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.
Madison also noted that when it came to direct taxes, slaves would be considered property for purposes of apportioning these taxes. Thus, southerners would be adversely affected by any rule which did fully count slaves. In the end, the three-fifths compromise works out a delicate balance on a very thorny issue that works for all sides.
Madison’s logic was as sharp here as it normally was throughout these essays. That being said, Madison defended the three-fifths clause not merely as a compromise, but as the morally correct way to apportion slaves. As I said, none of the Framers necessarily viewed slaves as merely being three-fifths of a human being, but Madison did come close to making this point here.
But we must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property. In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others, the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property. The federal Constitution, therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property. This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied, that these are the proper criterion; because it is only under the pretext that the laws have transformed the negroes into subjects of property, that a place is disputed them in the computation of numbers; and it is admitted, that if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants.
It is worth repeating that Madison did not state that he believed this to be the case, but rather this is what a southerner might say in defense of the compromise. Then again, Madison was a southern slaveholder himself, so perhaps the above paragraph is not really supposition at all. Whatever the case may be, Madison offered up a logical defense of the three-fifths clause positing that it was inherently justified on its own merits, not because it was merely a good compromise. It was certainly not Madison’s finest moment.