A Republican state senator from Oregon said on Tuesday that the designation of slaves as three-fifths of a person was not racist, drawing condemnation from at least two black lawmakers.
Sen. Dennis Linthicum, from Klamath Falls in southern Oregon, said during floor debate that the intent of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which classified a slave as three-fifths of a person in the U.S. Constitution, was a way to prevent slave states from gaining too much power in Congress.
“The three-fifths vote was actually to eliminate the overwhelming influence the slave states would have in representative government,” he said, adding that the move wasn’t because the founders thought “three-fifths was an appropriate measure of a man.”
Linthicum referred to the compromise while speaking against a measure to add Oregon to the National Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement between states to pledge all electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. It’s a way to bypass the Electoral College, which opponents say is a form of voter disenfranchisement that has its roots in the country’s founding.
The 1789 Constitutional Convention determined that slaves would be considered three-fifths of a person when apportioning taxes and states’ representatives in Congress. Historians largely agree that the compromise gave slave holding states inordinate power over choosing the president and in the Continental Congress. That political stronghold, however, eventually faded when population in northern states began to rapidly increase.
At least two black senators personally confronted Linthicum following the hearing. Democrat Sen. James Manning, of Eugene, told reporters that Linthicum provided an “offensive mischaracterization” of events, and that his comments were an example of people trying to rewrite history.
“It diminishes how we are going to move forward,” he said. “If you don’t recognize and accept the events of the past then we can’t move forward because then we live in a fantasy world.”
Linthicum called slavery “a stain on our nation,” and added that his conversations with Manning and with Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland, helped him see the racist legacy that the Three-Fifths Compromise left behind. But he still maintains that doesn’t negate that the intent of the move was to “strip power from slave states.”
Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis who has previously spoken out against a perceived hostile culture in the capitol, publicly criticized Linthicum on the floor.
“Let’s not compromise the humanity of our people,” she said. “This is not an appropriate compromise. It was never an appropriate compromise.”
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