Alternative Fractions

AdamsJeffersonEarlier this week historian Rebecca Onion published an essay in Aeon arguing that historians should take more seriously the concept of counterfactuals. Though often derided by professional historians, Onion argues quite effectively that such an approach to the past can force us to reconsider our assumptions about what actually did happen and ask new and perhaps even more creative questions about the past.

With that in mind, I’d like to begin a thought experiment that I hope continues in the comments with a counterfactual that’s been bothering me for months. Back in September, Kevin Gannon wrote a guest post here rebutting claims made by Sean Wilentz in a New York Times op-ed. As part of the discussion that followed, someone raised the question of whether the three-fifths compromise had influenced the outcome of the election of 1800. I responded with some very back-of-the-envelope calculations that suggested it was at least a possibility.

And so my mind has been wandering ever since, wondering about the different path of American history had John Adams won a second term in 1800, rather than Jefferson defeating his party compatriot Burr in an election settled by the House of Representatives. Would the United States have purchased Louisiana? Would Burr have shot Hamilton (no, seriously)? Would the War of 1812 have happened? Would Andrew Jackson ever have been anything more than a belligerent frontier slaveholder?

Of course, one of the keys that Onion pointed out is that the counterfactual has to be a single change to the space-time continuum and it has to be plausible. The problem with this formulation is that 1800 isn’t when the change occurred, but instead already one of the results.

In this case, the single change would have to be in 1787 rather than 1800; that is, this only makes sense as a question if the three-fifths compromise never appeared in the Constitution at all. Is that plausible? Perhaps, if you accept Gary Nash’s argument in Race and Revolution that the northern states could have pushed more forcefully against the South’s claims for constitutional protections for slavery and enslavers. His argument is not uncontroversial, but if we rebut it now, there’s no reason for me to write more of this post. So for the sake of the experiment at least, we’ll argue that the Constitution ended up without a clause allowing enslaved persons to count at a 3/5 rate for the purposes of representation and taxation.

What would have happened?

First of all, we can say for certain that representation in the new Congress would have been very different, and more northern. Keep in mind that this one change would have affected every state but Massachusetts and Vermont (after 1791), though of course it had a much greater impact in the South. Virginia is the most extreme case. In the 1790 census, Virginia counted 454,923 free persons and 292,627 enslaved persons, which calculated to a total of 17% of the national population. When just counting the free population, however, Virginia had only a 14% share of the national population—still very significant, but not nearly as large. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland all similarly gained at least one percentage point of the national population by including enslaved persons. On the other hand, even with small enslaved populations Pennsylvania and New York has smaller proportions, as did Massachusetts.[1]

Re-assessing the issue means that a host of other questions come back into play about the 1790s, including such small matters as the placement of the national capital (would it have been so far south?) and whether the United States would have been more politically likely to side with Britain instead of standing neutral. And of course those are just the most obvious issues that occurred to me. Then there’s the matter of what other questions might have popped up in a House of Representatives that was somewhat more northern in character. In some ways, by the time you get to 1800 Jefferson’s election seems a bit beside the point.

The central role of debates about slavery and the rise of sectionalism in the new United States means that this one particular change, which had enormous ripple effects (think about a clean John Quincy Adams election win in 1824, for one thing), is a pretty useful point of departure. Keeping in mind that this is offered in a spirit of good fun and inquiry, I turn it over to our readers: using the absence of a three-fifths compromise in the Constitution as a starting point, how would you spin out the history of the next fifty to seventy-five years?

[1] I pulled the data from the Historical Census Browser, hosted by the University of Virginia Library.

8 responses

    • There’s obviously a fair case to be made for that. Because my question started from the Election of 1800 and went backwards to the source, the post doesn’t explicitly contemplate the possibility of an unratified (or partially ratified?) Constitution, but that would be interesting to game out as well.

      • The unratified Constitution question is also one that could lead to interesting stories. One thing I always wonder about is what would have happened if the ratifying conventions had paid more attention to the qualifications voters in places like Massachusetts placed on their “yes” votes for ratification (I think Leonard Richards talked about this in Shays’s Rebellion)? Rather than having their concerns thrown out and their votes recorded as simply yes.

  1. Though without the 3/5 clause we might have presidential elections based on the popular vote alone; especially if the North, thinking as a bloc, wanted to maximize it’s influence in your counterfactual. In that case (as I mentioned in response to Gannon’s earlier post) Jefferson still would have won the election of 1800 and it would have been even more lopsided against Adams: 61% to 39% of the popular vote rather than 53% to 47% of the electoral college (73 to 65). In 1800 the electoral college benefited Adams more than the 3/5 clause benefited TJ. But yes, you are probably right that various other pieces of legislation and events would have worked out very differently.

    • That’s a good point, which I somehow missed in the original conversation. Though I suppose if we were drawing a counterfactual from the 3/5 Compromise, a popular vote isn’t necessarily what we would have ended up with. I still would think that was a less likely outcome given the trepidation about power in the hands of the people at work in the Convention. It might be more likely, as Herb Sloan suggested above, that the whole thing would have collapsed instead.

  2. Great piece! I tend to agree with Nash–SC & GA faced close to an existential threat, as they themselves saw it, from the Yamasee War. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that, had the northern delegates operated in concert to call their bluff, that it would have worked. So one interesting outcome to ponder is the fate of the tried-and-true tactic of Disunion threats as rhetorical hostage-taking in the early national and antebellum eras. If the Philadelphia Convention shot that tactic down in 1787, how attractive an option would it have appeared to later potential users?

  3. I am going to chew on this for days, but will begin by addressing a small issue: Placement of the national capital.

    I think the move of the national capital away from New York City would have happened regardless of the counterfactuals offered. The New York State government moved to Albany partly because the population of the state swelled to the north and west, but mostly because New York City had become too expensive for representatives to live in and travel to.

    With that said, would the capital have moved to Philadelphia or Washington D.C. if slaves hadn’t counted as 3/5ths of a person? I don’t know. I suspect it would have moved west as population expanded and eastern cities became more expensive to live in. Perhaps Cincinnati, Ohio or Lexington, Kentucky could have made a bid for the seat of the nation if the 3/5ths compromise had not passed.

  4. Pingback: Regional Remembering and Joseph Warren—America’s First President? « The Junto


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