Thursday, May 8, 2008

A former one-fifth of "The View" on the three-fifths clause

You know how when one celebrity dies and then another one does so a few days later, people talk about how stars leave us in threes? They may even morbidly start wondering who will go next.

Well, if celebrities misstating the meaning of the infamous three-fifths clause of the Constitution comes in threes, any day now we should have a third Hollywood biggie offering an incorrect interpretation. The other day I posted about Tom Hanks misconstruing the three-fifths clause:

And now here's Rosie O'Donnell earlier this week on the Today Show:

Refering to Reverend Wright, Rosie declared:

"But what it came to, boil down to in his mind is the fact that, you know, this man is, is following a tradition of black preachers and that there is a righteous indignation about people who were only considered three-fourths a person until fairly recently in our history."

She's got her fractions confused, of course; she meant to say three-fifths, not three-fourths. That's the most glaring error, but there's more. As I pointed out in my May 4th entry, the Constitution does not quite say that slaves were three-fifths of a person, but that only three-fifths of them would be counted in the census for purposes of representation and assessment of direct taxes.

I should also point out something I didn't in the Tom Hanks post: when the Constitution was adopted there were free blacks in this country. African-Americans in states where slavery had been eliminated were thus counted fully. So even if you think I'm quibbling on the difference between what Rosie O'Donnell and Tom Hanks said and what is accurate, remember that it was slaves counted as three-fifths, not blacks counted as three-fifths, and the two terms were not identical since a number of blacks were free. (Pennsylvania and the New England states had adopted emancipation legislation before the Constitution was ratified, New York and New Jersey had both done the same by 1804, see Currie, The Constitution in Congress: Descent Into the Maelstrom, 2005, p. 3.)

Parenthetically, let me add that it's a bit peculiar for an American like O'Donnell, to refer to Reconstruction--when the three-fifths clause was jettisoned through constitutional amendment--as "fairly recently in our history." For a Frenchman or an Englishman to call the 1860s recent in his country's history doesn't seem unreasonable, considering how long their nations have been around, but 140 some years ago doesn't seem all that recent when your country only goes back 232 years.

No comments: