THE REPENTANCE PROJECT / AN AMERICAN LENT
The Three-Fifths Compromise
WEEK I / DAY III
Friday, February 16, 2018
Scripture / Read Mark 12:13-17
Jesus asks for a coin and asks the seemingly innocent question: “Whose image [Greek, eikōn] is this? Whose title?” But the question is not innocent. Caesar has made the coin, imprinting his image upon it — so it is fine to give it back to him. But, then, who bears the image of God and thus belongs to Him? Human beings. Jesus’ answer not only evades His opponent’s trap — it raises the profound question of whether they, and we, are rendering all human beings to God with the dignity they deserve as His image bearers — or whether we are turning them into property and the currency of power and taxation.
Our History and Its Legacy
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States . . . according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” — Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution
The awful, arbitrary awkwardness of the so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise” at the Constitutional Congress is more complex and revealing than we often realize. It was not a simple conflict between those who wanted to treat enslaved individuals as whole persons (delegates from the Northern states) and those who wanted to treat them as non-persons (from the Southern states). Instead, it involved a conflict within the logic of slavery itself. For the purposes of elected representation, it would be to the advantage of the South that slaves be counted in the population of each state. But for the purposes of taxation — which was to be set based on the relative wealth of each state forming the new union — it would be better for slaves not to be counted at all.
So the Three-Fifths Compromise did not just resolve a conflict between pro- and anti-slavery states. It reflected a conflict within the South itself, and within the nation the South joined: whether “slaves” were persons or property. On that, given the interests of power and wealth at stake, even slaveholders could not make up their mind.
One silver lining in this dark cloud over our history is the final wording of the clause. It does not say, as we sometimes misremember, that slaves were “three fifths of a person.” The phrase is “three fifths of all other Persons” — meaning that in the end, every human being in the country was recognized in the Constitution as fully a “Person.” But resolving the conflict inherent in that admission would take not just further compromise, but in the end, a civil war.
Reflection and Response / Prayer of Repentance
It is easy, from our historical distance, to condemn the Three-Fifths Compromise.
But in what ways are we tempted to treat people as currencies of wealth or political power?
How, this day, will you be tempted to treat people you will meet not as primarily image bearers of God, but as sources of wealth for yourself, or as sources of support for your projects and interests or both?
Are there systems you participate in, even unwillingly, that treat people as mere numbers to advance others’ interest — or as “human resources” to create wealth for others?
How do these systems end up compromising on the requirement to treat other people as fully, wholly, none other than representatives of their Creator?
These are not easy or comfortable questions to contemplate, let alone answer. Sit with them long enough to offer these questions to God, who is jealous for every instance of His image in the world to be given full dignity and brought back into relationship with Him; and who is also merciful beyond our understanding even when we render unto the world’s empires what we should render to Him.
Written by Andy Crouch