Tennessee state Rep. Justin Lafferty (R) gave an impassioned speech on the state House floor Tuesday, saying the Three-Fifths Compromise was included in the Constitution “for the purpose of ending slavery”—which isn’t true, since the compromise allowed slaveholding states to hold a massive amount of political power in the U.S.’s early years for the purpose of allowing slavery to continue.
Lafferty was speaking on behalf of a Republican-backed bill that would ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, which holds that U.S. institutions are inherently racist since they act to create racial inequity.
But basing his argument on a view that the Three-Fifths Compromise was enacted to restrict the power of southern states has no clear basis in fact.
The compromise was agreed to as part of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, allowing for only three-fifths of the enslaved population to be counted for purposes of Congressional apportionment and Electoral College allocation.
It came at the insistence of southern slaveholders, who demanded significant representation as part of joining with largely free northern areas to form the early United States.
Most historians agree the goal of the agreement was to uphold white supremacy in the South, with slaveholders gaining a disproportionate amount of power from the counting of large swaths of the population that did not have basic human rights or a right to vote.
Republican legislators reportedly applauded Lafferty’s speech.
“Do we talk about that? I don’t hear that anywhere,” Lafferty said of his view the Three-Fifths Compromise.
Paul Finkelman, an American legal historian who now serves as president of Gratz College, wrote in The New York Times the compromise was “one of a number of proslavery provisions of the Constitution that antislavery Northerners could have resisted.” The increased power in Congress and presidential elections as a direct result of the Three-Fifths Compromise—along with a difficult constitutional amendment process—”guaranteed a continuation of slavery,” Finkelman said.
43%. That’s how much of the South Carolina population was enslaved in 1790, according to that year’s U.S. Census. The state—then ranked seventh of 16 states in total population—was able to count three-fifths of that enslaved population for purposes of Congressional apportionment.
Tennessee is one of several states with heavily Republican legislatures that are pushing through legislation to restrict what views of history students can be taught in public schools. The efforts seem to follow in the footsteps of former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which he created during one of his final acts as president with the goal of promoting “patriotic education,” especially when it came to venerating the Founding Fathers and downplaying the role of slavery in American history. President Joe Biden signed an executive order eliminating the commission on his first day in office.
Last week, Louisiana state Rep. Ray Garofalo (R) said public schools and universities in Louisiana should have to teach the “good” of slavery when discussing racial history in the United States. Garofalo was arguing in favor of a bill to ban “divisive concepts” from being taught in state classrooms. The bill ultimately failed to pass the state House Education Committee.
Lafferty is serving in his second term after first winning election to the Tennessee House in 2018. He serves as chairman of Tennessee’s Joint Judiciary and Government Subcommittee as well as the state House Higher Education Subcommittee.