Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Persons and Censuses

 "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.  The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. "  U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2 (3).

Let us begin, first, with the long-term historical interest of this now-infamous passage.  Readers today are most likely to pick out the 3/5 clause.  Today many black and white Americans believe that it defined black people as 3/5 of a person, as Spike Lee, for instance, claimed in one of his movies.  It did not: the Founders in this as in other passages--as historian Sean Wilentz has just pointed out in a new book--carefully avoided any explicit mention of race, or of the institution of slavery, in the text of the Constitution.   Moreover, the southern slave owners, not the northerners whose states were then abolishing slavery, wanted to count all their slaves in the census that would determine how many representatives they sent to Congress, and the 3/5 rule was a compromise that marginally favored the southern position.   I can't resist noting, also, that the original Constitution is equally free of racist and sexist language.  In the trailer for On the Basis of Sex, the forthcoming biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we see a dismissive white male justice tell then-attorney Ginsburg that "the word woman" does not appear in the US Constitution.  "Neither does the word 'freedom'," she replies.  The real Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I would like to think, would have responded--accurately--"Neither does the word 'man.'" The founders' chosen word to refer to inhabitants of the US, as shown in the passage above, was "persons"--one just as useful in the cause of equality today as it was then.  Yet young people today routinely refer to the founders as "those white guys" who cared about nothing but themselves.

The question I really want to address today, however, relates to the broader purpose of the above paragraph, the enumeration of inhabitants and the purpose which it is supposed to serve. The same issue found its way into the 14th amendment, the post-Civil War Republicans' first attempt to secure the rights of freed slaves and enshrine the outcome of the conflict.  It included the following:

"Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,  and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."

This clause, to begin with, makes even more explicit what the original Constitutional provision clearly implied: that the decennial census must count all inhabitants of each state, not simply all citizens--the point that has become relevant again today.  What I only learned relatively recently is that this clause was designed to encourage the readmitted southern states to allow freed slaves to vote.  Previously, under slavery, they had black inhabitants had counted at the rate of 3/5 of their numbers; now, if the southern states refused to let them vote, they would not count at all.  The Republicans also favored this solution because they were frightened to simply degree Negro suffrage (as it was then called) in the Constitution, fearing that many northern states, sadly, would reject it.  Under this clause the southern states had to choose between severely reduced representation and letting all adult males vote.  Unfortunately this tactic failed.  The former confederate states uniformly refused either to ratify the 14th amendment or to grant black citizens voting rights.  The 15th amendment followed in short order, and the northern states did ratify it.

Here, for the first time, sexism did find its way into the US Constitution--while this passage certainly does not clam that only men can vote, it denies women any specific constitutional right to do so.  As a matter of fact, 16 states--a third of the total--granted women the right to vote before the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.  At  no time did the US Constitution prohibit women's suffrage.

And now, in 2018, the original passage from Article I has become controversial again, thanks in part because of the distinction that was implied in that passage and made explicit in the 14th Amendment: the distinction between inhabitants, who reside within the states and must be counted for the purposes of apportionment, and citizens, who now enjoy the right to vote.  The number of inhabitants of the US who are not citizens is probably at an all time high at this moment.  These include an estimated 13 million lawful permanent residents, or Green Card holders, who are eligible to become citizens but have not yet done so, and a comparable number of illegal aliens who at this time have no path to citizenship.  Illegal aliens (referred to on the left now as "undocumented") are often estimated at 11 million, but a recent study, which appears to be carefully researched, showed that the number could easily be as high as 22 million.  A new controversy has arisen because the Trump Administration wants to add a question to the census--one that has been part of the questionnaire in earlier periods--asking whether the respondent is a US citizen. Various states are suing to try to keep that question out of the census.

I hope my regular readers have come to understand that I have a real obsession with fairness, and with trying to identify workable, impartial rules to meet all sorts of legal and political situations, rather than simply to focus on what will help, or hurt, causes which I happen to favor.  That often divides me nowadays from many of my fellow Democrats.  The states and liberal activists oppose this question because they feel that it is designed to intimidate illegal aliens and cause them not to participate in the census, leading to an undercount. That may be true.  I on the other hand find the question not only reasonable, but necessary, if we are to try to deal realistically with the presence of 11 million or 22 million illegal immigrants within the US.  It seems to me that we all should care enough about this situation to try to find out the truth, whatever the motives of the administration happen to be.  I also believe that the present situation is not one that we should be trying to perpetuate.

A great many illegal immigrants live in blue states--although some red states, led by Texas, have large populations of illegals as well.  The Democrats are worried that if a great many of them avoid the census, their states will be undercounted, leading to a reduction in federal benefits allocated to their states, and even, possibly, a reduction in the number of representatives in Congress they receive in the next reapportionment.  What really disturbs me about all this is that the leadership of the Democratic Party seems to have dropped any demand for a path to citizenship for our 11-22 million illegal aliens, the vast majority of whom hold down jobs, obey the law, and are raising families.  The Democrats are finding it more expedient to focus on DACA and the dreamers, a more appealing group from a public relations standpoint, but who represent only a fraction of the real problem.  Ironically, by pushing for the fullest possible count of inhabitants both legal and illegal, while failing to push for a path to citizenship, the Democrats are echoing, weirdly, the position of the antebellum white southerners.  While they want these people counted to get full benefits and representation for their states, they don't particularly care if they get to vote.  And they seem comfortable with this position even though the current situation, like the situation in the South from 1876 to 1965, obviously undermines American democracy.  In each case, we have a large working population--most of it in the lower economic half of our society--who cannot vote.  That obviously skews national, state and local politics rightward, and helps perpetuate, and worsen, economic inequality.

On too many issues--especially economic ones--the Democratic Party has been reduced to calling for marginal changes that appear to at least check the prevailing trends in our political and social life, rather than make a fundamental attack on the ills of our age.  This also seems to me the problem with their stance on immigration. Yes, DACA recipients deserve protection, and yes, the increasingly aggressive persecution [sic] of illegal residents by ICE needs to stop,  but the only real solution to our demographic problem today is a path to citizenship, even if it has to be combined with new and more severe restrictions on additional  immigration.  We must not in my opinion try to sweep the issue under the rug, as we did the issue of suffrage for black Americans for 90 years.  I hope to live to see some real progress on this issue.


Ed Boyle said...

Nobody seems to talk of the problem of global overpopulation. If all of 3rd world excess population due to high birth rates and dydfuncytional economies is supposdd to land in EU, US that will implode those receiving countries and their economies, democracies and hardly relieve the problems back home in Africa, Latin America. Environmental problems of overfishing, deforestation, soil erosion, sinking water tables, resources depletion plus pollution and climate change means we must rapidly shrink our populations and economies. You speak of solving our demographic problem by immigration. People live aay beyond productive years and rely on cenrtralized pension systems dependent on a pyramid shaped age structure. This is incompatible with ever smaller family size and ever longer life spans. Immigration cannot fundamentally alter this conundrum. This system is currently running into bankruptcy. Any new immigrants also have fewer children. Also 3rd world countries are transitioning demographically. We take their scientists and their young workers in a brain and muscle drain to save our overgenerous pensions system, hurting their development but it helped little in EU and US as bankruptcy is inevitable.

The entire purely emotional discussion, similar to the slavery discussion as the origin of the civil war blends out the root economic driving forces in both crises. People just can't deal with complicated, unemotional forces and wish to see simple answers like in internet conspiracy theories. OTOH I sound eerily like the computer program which suggested iirc that Reagan or another president step down after 6 years to give his vp a better shot at the next election. I don't take human nature into consideration. It is like a gaggle of monkeys fighting over bananas without any deeper insights over the big picture of what is going on. Once grain production globally starts falling, diesel generators cost benefit ratios to reach kilometer deep ancient water in china and India are reachsd, fishing boats with computerized sonar all come back empty, etc. who will care about prosthetics for nonogenarians, full employment for global middle classes. I think we are being very short sighted.

Gloucon X said...

“the only real solution to our demographic problem today is a path to citizenship, even if it has to be combined with new and more severe restrictions on additional immigration”

There is no "problem" in need of a solution if you’re in the business ownership class. For them, the immigration policy changes passed in 1965, which produced the 22 million strong pool of easily exploitable labor, have been a boon. The initial benefits went to border-area agricultural interests, but they are now spread throughout the economy. Democratic Party leaders such as Pelosi, Schumer, and the Clintons chose to keep policy exactly as it has been for the last fifty years because their donor class have reaped the benefits. Both parties have kept the policy the same for the same reason. "Good for capitalism," also explains why the corporate media would choose to ignore the issue or gloss over it. An open borders policy is just capitalism at its purest. “We shall do whatever benefits the business class and harms the working class.” Immigration policy is part of the long list of well-planned pro-capitalist policies that have resulted in runaway inequality.

Bozon said...

Great post. Interesting topic.

I have to say, reading this passage, that my view, and I will add, the correct one, is that it had nothing whatsover to do with equality of races, and 'the white guys' did care about nothing but themselves.

The Northern whites were at pains to make sure that they were not cheated of Northern white federal representation by allowing Soutern states to count slaves as whole numbers re inhabitants or persons.

Incidentally, they cared about those whites who were in indentured servitude, a large number of the people. They did not care about the negroes as negroes, and did not consider them part of the people.

Any other interpretation is a species of Whiggism.

"...The founders' chosen word to refer to inhabitants of the US, as shown in the passage above, was "persons"--one just as useful in the cause of equality today as it was then. Yet young people today routinely refer to the founders as "those white guys" who cared about nothing but themselves..." DK

All the best

Feryl said...

"Nobody seems to talk of the problem of global overpopulation. If all of 3rd world excess population due to high birth rates and dydfuncytional economies is supposdd to land in EU, US that will implode those receiving countries and their economies, democracies and hardly relieve the problems back home in Africa, Latin America. "

The massive growth in the population of Western countries that occurred in the 1950's and 60's, due to the baby boom, combined with the over-population narrative being emphasized in the 1970's, resulted in native Western birth rates quickly plummeting starting around 1973.

The business community was well aware of these demographic "issues" (aging and eventually declining population), started to panic about growth opportunities declining in the future, and succeeded at pressuring politicians and civic groups into expanding the number of immigrants accepted into Western countries. In the US, 1978 would be the first year of legal immigration levels exceeding the limit of 500,000, which was adhered to from 1925-1977. Not coincidentally, the late 1970's is also when, on a global scale, the neo-liberal right began to achieve a lot of victories over the socialist, or quasi-socialist, Left. Carter de-regulated the airline and trucking industries, and the UK saw fit to elect Thatcher in 1979.

US immigration stats: https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2015/table1

So, Ed, while Western natives were correct to believe in the 1970's that it was irresponsible to continue to have lots of children.....The business community (and politicians and activists increasingly nervous that labor had too much power against management) by the mid-70's was busy figuring out how to "correct" the problem of a stagnant population by importing more people. In effect, we've done nothing on an overall level to reduce consumption; in fact, as you point out, the world's population, and the population of many Western countries, is now bigger than it was in the 1970's.

Worker and consumer-wise, the glut of people born in the 50's and 60's resulted in later Boomers having to deal with fewer opportunities and more expensive housing (whereas the tiny Silent generation was very privileged). By keeping immigration high since the late 70's, later generations have also experienced lower wages, fewer opportunities, and affordable housing being hard to come by thanks to the supply always falling short of ever growing demand. The elite property owning class have been the biggest winners over the last 40 years, while each generation of youth has faced a growing crisis of affordable housing being out of reach.

Bozon said...


Maybe you will forgive me for making another comment, but chalk it up to my greediness.

When you seem to advocate "a fundamental attack on the ills of our age" I can't think what you mean, given our system, and cannot imagine either party here ever being capable, given how our political system was set up and how resistant to reform it has shown itself to be, of anything remotely like that. You seem to be talking about really big ills of the whole world.

All the best