Today We Hold the Future in Trust
Brian Geddes
61

Ummm… it’s more complex than heroes and villains, too.

Without the 3/5 clause there was going to be no national constitution. I’ll assume we agree that in principle having one was better than not. We both loathe slavery; under articles of confederation slavery would have been marginally more entrenched. The Confederacy of 1861 would have been in effect in 1779 with no argument that it should not.

You mention the clause as the “three-fifths compromise” but gloss over in what way it was a compromise and to what end. There’s no need to correct you, but let me spell it out for the folks playing at home.


The issue was how to apportion the states’ representation in the House of Representatives. It was to be by population.

The slave states said it should be by count of souls (would they have been comfortable with that word?): Every person held to service would count as much as a freeman. Virginia (for instance) would have had a few extra congressmen to “represent” people who were in no respect citizens. Call it the five-fifths rule.

The free states insisted as you and I would have, and as outrages some today, that not one person should add to the power of the states wherein they were chattel. Call it the zero-fifths rule.

Today some people — surely you do not sympathize — proclaim they would have accepted no less than the total empowerment of human bondage through a five-fifths rule. To such, the American nation is to that extent forever illegitimate.

(You want extreme language, I’m glad to oblige.)

That’s the compromise. We agree on not liking it. If we had our way, Massachusetts would be forever free — and Georgia would be forever slave. The compromise did more good than a self-satisfying gesture.


“Persons held to service” was the language of the clause. Not every such person was black; only (only?!) 90% of blacks were slaves. If the 3/5 clause was meant to be… genocidal, the framers went to a lot of trouble to be inefficient at it.


The Snidely Whiplash Style in American Politics

The opposite of “progressive” (I am happier than you’d like with the word) is not “regressive” or “reactionary.”

Please spot me my right to restrict the discussion to people who have thought enough about it to be worth engaging. You’re claiming that right for yourself. Flinging klansmen — from today or the Progressive era— at each other is a waste of time.


Imagine a door-to-door salesman coming to your door. (Imagine a door-to-door salesman.)

He offers to reformulate your blood. (Or if you like, to build a fracking operation three miles from your home.) He offers an array of expert opinion — as much and as impressive as you like — proving this is a good idea. He convinces you that his commitment to abolishing leukemia, hemophilia, and stroke is utterly sincere.

You have doubts. You may be uncomfortable with his insinuations that the only reason you doubt is that you want more people to bleed out and die. You’re evil. You hate people with the sickle cell trait.

Soon you’d put your finger on it: These are the same people who told you you should drink three glasses of milk every day; that dietary salt will kill you until it was discovered it had no effect on mortality; that GMOs should be embraced out-of-hand (if you swing that way). Maybe (as you believe about rain forests) human blood represents hundreds of millions of years’ refinement by natural selection. Maybe there is real-world evidence that it is the best equilibrium achievable, despite the findings of hundreds of millions of learned milliseconds.

You don’t think this is the right approach. You must really be a racist. Contradicting all those experts is part of your War on Science.

Congratulations. You have just had a conservative moment.

You are not inhumane. You are not part of the godbothering creationist underclass. You are are all for the progressive advancement of the medical sciences. You are not “regressive.”

You applied your experience, and that of a few billion others, and you doubted.

That doesn’t make you Snidely Whiplash.


So I denounce the reforms of the Civil Rights era? Please. Again: If you want to play straw-man games instead of engaging, this is going to be a real short conversation. We have no common frame of reference. We both know what’s going to be in most of the replies, and we both know you’re better than that. You have actual thoughts.

The Civil Rights movement was right, and its opponents were wrong, even the gradualists and libertarians who didn’t see what the hurry was. Most of the survivors have confessed, and almost all of their successors affirm that the (in some cases willful) blindness to the moral emergency was inexcusable. A conservative can accept reform (lay off the cholesterol) while still resisting the make-the-rain-forest-rational-by-paving-it-over approach to a society that has come to a humane (by historical standards) but improvable equilibrium.

So put that klansman back in your pocket.

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