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Tennessee lawmaker defends Three-Fifths Compromise: It was actually about 'ending slavery'

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are attempting to defund schools that teach children about the history of systemic racism.

By Oliver Willis - May 04, 2021
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On Tuesday, during a debate on the floor of the Tennessee General Assembly, state Rep. Justin Lafferty, a Republican claimed that the Three-Fifths Compromise was about “ending slavery.”

“We ended up biting a bitter, bitter pill that haunts us today. And we did it to lay the foundation for all this that we enjoy in this country,” Lafferty said, referencing the compromise.

He added, “The Three-Fifths Compromise was a direct effort to ensure that southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country.”

Additionally, Lafferty argued that not counting enslaved Blacks as a whole person was a praiseworthy achievement.

“By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery,” he said. “Well before Abraham Lincoln. Well before Civil War.”

The claim is inaccurate and ahistorical. The Three-Fifths Compromise, in which enslaved Black people were counted as three-fifths of a human being for the purposes of counting the American population, further enshrined the institution of slavery in America.

After the compromise was agreed to in 1787, millions of human beings lived in bondage until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and the abolition of slavery through the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Lafferty’s comment came as the Legislature was debating legislation proposed by Tennessee Republicans that would ban public schools from teaching students lessons on systemic racism within the United States.

State Rep. John Ragan (R), who proposed the bill, called for “tak[ing] a stand” against “hucksters, charlatans and useful idiots peddling identity politics.”

Republicans at both the state and national level have lashed out at discussion about the role systemic racism has played in American history and the present.

From a May 4 session of the Tennessee General Assembly:

JUSTIN LAFFERTY: I’m sure everybody’s finished writing down their answer to the Three-Fifths Compromise. I’m going to go back to that for just a second.

 

The northern states — and again, something you don’t hear about in the dialogue today — the northern states for a long time had abolitionist movements. Europe, England, our parent country, if you will, had abolitionist movements against slavery for a long time.

 

When we got to the United States of America, the northern states knew that they could not defeat the British without the help of the south. They knew it. They had to have the materials, the resources of the south in order to challenge the greatest empire on the planet.

 

So what did we do? We’re faced with the dilemma, we’re faced with challenge. Does half of the nation — north of the Mason-Dixon line, for reference — try to take on the greatest empire in the world while supplies in the south are fed to their enemies?

 

What sense does that make? You’ve all ran for office. You strategize when you do that. You’d think you’d strategize when you try to start a country, right?

 

We ended up biting a bitter, bitter pill that haunts us today. And we did it to lay the foundation for all this that we enjoy in this country. For as much as we scream and fight and argue, there is no place in this world that I’d rather live and call home.

 

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a direct effort to ensure that southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country.

 

What does that mean? Appropriation based on population. That’s how we pick. Everybody in here knows. We’ve got nine — I hope I’m right — nine state representatives. By limiting the number of population in the count, they 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 Civil War.

 

Do we talk about that? I don’t hear that anywhere in this conversation across the country. I don’t know how we’ve gotten here, I don’t know what we do about it, but talking about changing our history — changing’s not the right word — talking about incorporating another view of history, while ignoring the very writings that we have access to, is no way to go about it.

 

Start with the truth. Start with what happened. Start with how we got here. And then let’s move forward.

 

I don’t say anything on this floor today with any malice toward any of my friends on the other side. 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 gonna find it.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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