NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Three-Fifths Compromise, an agreement reached during the negotiations in 1787 to create the U.S. Constitution, found that, for the purposes of representation and taxation, only three-fifths of a state’s enslaved people would be counted toward its total population. It is regarded as one of the most racist deals made among the states during the country’s founding.
Yet in a speech in the Tennessee General Assembly on Tuesday, a representative defended the compromise, arguing that it was “a bitter, bitter pill” that was necessary to curtail the power of slaveholding states and that helped clear the way to ending slavery — remarks that were rebuked by critics, including Black colleagues, as insulting and demeaning.
“By limiting the number of population in the count,” state Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, said on the House floor, participants in the Constitutional Convention “specifically limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery — well before Abraham Lincoln, well before the Civil War.”
Lafferty made the comments as lawmakers in Tennessee were debating legislation aimed at limiting what public and charter schools can teach students about the influence of institutional racism and privilege.
Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, who chairs the Black Caucus in the Tennessee House of Representatives, called Lafferty’s comments offensive and said the applause from other lawmakers after he finished the speech had been especially stinging.
“I thought it was horrible,” Parkinson said, adding that no matter the argument, it was impossible to defend policies that protected slavery and failed to account for the full humanity of African Americans. “I don’t care if it’s policy or how you’re counting heads, there is nothing good about slavery.”
Republicans have called for a measure that would cut funding to schools that teach critical race theory, an academic movement that asserts that historical patterns of discrimination have created disadvantages based on race. It is part of a broader effort by conservatives across the country to push back against the argument that racism was a key part of the nation’s origin story and created imbalances that endure.
In his speech, Lafferty repeated an argument that has long been made by some scholars and raised by lawmakers in other states. The counting of enslaved people had been a significant sticking point in the convention. Northerners argued that none of them should be included in the population totals, but Southerners wanted them to be fully counted, further strengthening the region’s political power and insulating slavery from abolition efforts.
Ron Hanks, a Republican state representative in Colorado, was assailed last month after he said the Three-Fifths Compromise “was not impugning anybody’s humanity.” In Oregon, Dennis Linthicum, a Republican state senator, was criticized for making a similar argument in 2019, saying the compromise was not rooted in a belief by the country’s Founding Fathers that “three-fifths was an appropriate measure of a man.”
Lafferty, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, said in the speech that he was exasperated by what he saw as a larger drive to look at the nation’s history in a harsher light.
“I don’t say anything on this floor today with any malice toward any of my friends on the other side,” Lafferty said. “I say this only because I’m tired, y’all. The people of this nation are tired. If you start looking for trouble — if that’s all you’re bent on — I guarantee you, you’re going to find it.”