New York History

Indulging in Counterfactuals: The Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution

Upside Down US Map What would have happened if the Constitution of the United States had not had its Three-Fifths clause? Joe Adelman poses this thought-provoking question in “Alternative Fractions,” a post that responds to both Rebecca Onion’s “What if?” essay on Aeon and Kevin Gannon’s “The Constitution, Slavery, and the Problem of Agency."

I love counterfactuals because they make me think about contingency. However, the counterfactual posed by Joe requires serious thought because of its scope.

In this post, I take a stab at addressing what would have happened if the Three-Fifths clause had not been added to the United States Constitution.


A Brief Overview of the Three-Fifths Clause

The Three-Fifths clause appears in Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.

Article 1, Section 2 outlines the House of Representatives. It addresses who can serve as a Representative and how population will determine House membership.

Here is the Three-Fifths clause:

“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 clause represents a compromise. The Articles of Confederation apportioned taxes according to land values. States undervalued their land to lower their tax burden. During the Constitutional Convention (1787) many delegates wanted population to be the basis for tax allocation.

As the Convention debated the merits of the “Connecticut Plan,” the version of the Constitution that supported a bicameral legislative branch, northern states and southern states disagreed over how slaves would count if the Constitution based representation in the House of Representatives on population. James Wilson of Pennsylvania and Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a compromise to entice southern support for the population-based House: Each slave would count as three-fifths of a white person.

The result of this compromise: The delegates agreed on the Constitution and southern representation in the new government increased from about 38 percent under the Articles of Confederation government to about 45 percent under the new Constitution. This increase in representation gave southerners the power they needed to control presidential elections with electoral votes. However, the representative advantage proved short lived as the population in northern and western states grew more rapidly than in southern states.


Major Components of the Three-Fifths Clause Counterfactual

Joe's counterfactual question has two major components that if we altered their history would have far-reaching implications.

Presidential elections, 1789-1828: Five of the first seven presidents hailed from southern states; four from Virginia.

Congressional Representation: Without the Three-Fifths clause congressional leaders may not have come from the south and legislation that failed to pass without southern support would have passed.

Hamilton Jefferson Madison


One Brief Scenario for the Three-Fifths Clause Counterfactual

If the states had ratified the Constitution without the Three-Fifths clause the history of the nation would be very different.

Northern states would have had more control in both the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. This means George Washington may have been the only member of the “Virginia Dynasty” to serve as president between 1789 and 1825.

Alexander Hamilton would not have met Thomas Jefferson and James Madison “in the room where it happen[ed]” to exchange congressional votes for removing the nation's capital to the banks of the Potomac River because Hamilton would not have needed their support to get his debt assumption bill passed.

Without Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison's backroom deal, the nation’s capital would not have moved south. It would have moved west from New York City.

Actual History

After the Revolution, 700,000 to 800,000 New Englanders migrated into New York State. The Yankees flooded into post-war New York City and established new, New English towns in northern and western parts of the state. Once the migrants filled New York they pushed west to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. Americans further south also migrated. They moved into what would become Kentucky and Tennessee.

As the population expanded in the west, it also burgeoned in eastern cities like New York City and Philadelphia. The cost of living in these cities rose as demand for living space and life necessities increased. On November 1796, the New York State Assembly and Senate voted to relocate the state capital to Albany. They made this decision partly because the population of the state had grown in its northern and western regions, but mostly because New York City had become too expensive for many representatives to live in and travel to.

The economic and population factors that caused the New York State government to relocate its capital to a more central and cheaper location would have also forced the federal government to relocate from New York City. As Philadelphia experienced a similar rise in cost of living, I believe a different negotiation would have occurred and the capital of the United States would have moved to a place like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cincinnati, Ohio, Lexington or Louisville, Kentucky, or Indianapolis, Indiana.

New Capital Map

A Return to Counterfactual History

Without southern control of the Electoral College, John Adams would have won the Election of 1800 handily, even amidst Jeffersonian criticism for the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Would President Adams have made the Louisiana Purchase?

Yes, presuming Napoleon’s situation in France remains on its actual historical trajectory.

The loss of the French forces in Saint Domingue in 1802/1803 and France’s wars in Europe would have have forced Napoleon to raise capital by selling Louisiana to the United States. A shrewd Yankee, Adams would have found a way to make this purchase happen. Even if Adams hadn’t been perceptive enough to see the bargain Napoleon offered, his wife Abigail would have and she would have talked her “Dearest Friend" into the purchase.

After President Adams, the United States would have had more northern presidents. Men like George Clinton, DeWitt Clinton, Rufus King and Daniel Tompkins of New York, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts offer real possibilities. John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts also would have served and possibly before 1825.

President Clinton

Aspects that Require More Thought

Joe poses an intriguing counterfactual question. Without the Three-Fifths clause a lot would have been different. Even after investing some time into thinking about this counterfactual, several big questions remain unanswered in my mind:

Would the United States have declared war against Great Britain in 1812?

Would the charter of the First Bank of the United States have been extended? If so, what would that have meant for the economy of the United States? Would the Panics of 1819 and 1837 have happened?

How would a northern or western president's approval of the Bonus Bill of 1817 have changed western expansion and internal commerce?

If the north and west had secured electoral and legislative power sooner than it did, would the Compromise of 1820 have been necessary?

Would the expansion of slavery have been an issue?

Would the nation have overpowered the south and voted to gradually abolish slavery before the Civil War?


What Do You Think?

What do you think would have happened in any of the above scenarios?  

Rethinking French and Indian War Profits

Albany-map-1758-1050x700How much money did the merchants of Albany, New York realize from the French and Indian War? In this post you will discover the exciting new information I found during a recent research trip to the American Antiquarian Society and why I am rethinking French and Indian War profits.


Charges of Great Profits

New England merchants and soldiers, New York City merchants, and traders from abroad complained that the merchants of Albany had discriminated against them during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

They charged the Albanians with excessive taxation and with creating an unwelcome environment. They also claimed that the merchants of Albany had reaped great profits from the war.

Secondary sources about the war contextualize and moderate these assertions. The secondary sources claim that the profits of the war began in London and trickled down to merchants in major American seaports like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City before they reached inland cities like Albany.


The Business of Military Supply

The War Department requisitioned supplies and contracted with large London mercantile firms to provide them. In turn, the London firms engaged large American houses, like those owned by the DeLanceys of New York City and the Franks of Philadelphia, to receive, acquire, and disperse those provisions.


Often provisions contracts between London merchants and large American firms charged American merchants with acquiring perishable foodstuffs closer to the front. Sometimes the American firms engaged trusted contacts in settlements closer to the front lines to fulfill their agreements for perishables and to deliver London-sent goods to locally stationed commissaries. More often, they sent factors (usually junior partners) inland to facilitate their military contracts.

John Bradstreet 1764Available records make it impossible to quantify how much profit Albany merchants made during the French and Indian War.

Scattered documents show goods that some Albany merchants imported during the war. They also provide a glimpse of how much money the British Army spent in Albany to hire laborers, build bateaus, and provide other services. For example, in 1758, John Bradstreet needed 1,500 bateaus for the campaign against Ticonderoga. He infused £19,251:15:1/2 into the Albany economy by purchasing lumber, naval stores, and labor to build them.


How Much Did Albany Merchants Profit from the War?

Although available documents make it impossible to quantify how much Albanian merchants profited from the war, I have never doubted that some of them must have made a fortune.

However, a recent research trip to the American Antiquarian Society has prompted me to rethink my assumption. My trip to the AAS put me into contact with the letterbooks of Cornelis Cuyler, one of Albany’s wealthiest merchants.

Cornelis Cuyler made his money the old-fashioned way: inheritance, marriage, and business.

The eldest surviving son of Johannes Cuyler and Elsie Ten Broeck, Cuyler inherited both the family fur trade business and the elite status that came with the “ancient” Albany-based names of Cuyler and Ten Broeck. He became a third-generation fur trader, a trade that required him to interact with Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee or Iroquois peoples and travel into “Indian Country.”

Plan of Ft William HenryCuyler’s efforts and keen sense of the trade enhanced the family business and wealth, as did his marriage to Catharina Schuyler, the youngest daughter of Albany Mayor Johannes Schuyler and Elsie Staats Wendell Schuyler. (Schuyler, Wendell, and Staats are also surnames that belonged to elite Albany families.)

Cuyler’s letterbooks provide ample evidence that he understood the fur trade and how to leverage his familial connections to trade in Albany and abroad; Cuyler knew how to buy (or trade) for furs, where and when to sell those furs (London or Amsterdam), and how to use the proceeds to purchase English and Dutch manufactured goods, or goods from the West Indies, who to contact to smuggle the Dutch goods into New York, and how to sell them at a profit in Albany.

Cuyler's letterbooks reveal that knowledgeable and established Albany merchants profited early in the war, but not after 1756.

In 1755, Cuyler purchased £100* worth of textiles, clothing, and metal goods to sell to British soldiers, colonial militiamen, or for use in the fur trade. Additionally, Cuyler discussed how he provisioned sick and wounded soldiers at Lake George, advanced money to representatives from various colonial war committees, and rented property to an out-of-town commissary.

Fort FrederickI have not been able to locate Cuyler’s account books, but his letters show someone with few complaints until April 1757.

On April 7, 1757, Cuyler wrote to his relative and factor in Boston, Jacob Wendell, “Every thing here is @ Present Stagnated.”

On the same day, he wrote to his eldest son Philip in New York City, “Everything here is Stagnated with us” and that all of the profit went “to the People from New York” who “Supplys the Regulars Troups.” Cuyler commented on the unfairness of the situation: the merchants of New York City made all the money “& we have all the Burdon. I have at present 6 men & an Officer Billeted upon me that is Besides the Officers Servant.”

Cuyler’s letters reflect frustration at the military supply system. Unable to make money in military supply, Cuyler and his son invested in risky privateering ventures. Cuyler disliked the risk associated with privateering, but he invested in one or two ships anyway; he held a 1/16th share of one privateer.



Cornelis Cuyler’s letterbooks provide evidence that the people of Albany profited from the war, but not necessarily to the extent that the accounts of New England and foreign merchants have led us to believe.

Albany merchants who wanted to get rich from the war invested in risky schemes like privateering because partnerships with New York City firms did not always work out.

Cuyler’s letters indicate that more often than not New York City merchants like the DeLanceys removed Albany merchants from the profit chain. They hired New York City men or sent their sons to handle the supply contracts.

Cuyler’s letterbooks represent just one source. I plan to look for others, but few account and letterbooks from Albany during the French and Indian War period remain thanks to time and the New York Capitol fire of 1911.

Still, Cuyler’s letters provide insight into why the Albanians resorted to enforcing the ancient practice of “freedoms” (a license that all persons not born in Albany had to purchase in order to conduct trade in the city) and why they petitioned the New York Assembly, Governor, and Council to enact a law that would permit them to tax transient merchants. (The New York Assembly, Governor, and Council passed the requested law.)

Cuyler's letterbooks also suggest that the Albanians guarded their chances to profit because the trials and tribulations brought on by living in close proximity to British Regulars year-round caused many Albanians to feel entitled when it came to profiting from the war. Any profits the Albanians earned came at the price of hosting and housing the British Army.

* relates that £100 sterling in 1755 was worth approximately $13,500 in 2013.

Drawing of Fort Frederick courtesy of the Albany Institute of History & Art



Revisions, Revisions

EditHave you ever reached a point in your writing where it seems like no matter what words you put on to the page, they just rehash the same ideas and the same words over and over? By mid-August I had reached that point with Chapter 1 of my book. It was a brand new chapter, that I over researched, and every time I tried to rewrite and improve my draft, the same ideas and words appeared on the page.

I decided it was time to take a break from the chapter.

Before I shelved it, I organized all of my thoughts and printed out what I had written. Today, my unfinished chapter sits just out of sight, neatly packaged in a notebook I created.

I still have to get through 4 chapters by early February.

I pitched the Boston Early American History Seminar my fourth chapter for its workshop and they accepted it. I will present it at the Massachusetts Historical Society on March 3, 2015. However, as the seminar pre-circulates papers, I have to finish Chapter 4 by February 3, 2015.

With time of the essence, I realize I cannot approach Chapter 2 the same way I approached Chapter 1.

In this post you will learn more about my dissertation-to-book revisions process.


Problems with My Chapter 1 Approach

Chapter 1 ShelvedI know where I went wrong with Chapter 1: I started with a chronological reading list, not an outline.

My dissertation committee and potential publisher feel that in order for my readers to understand my ideas and story, I need to provide more context about how the people of Albany, New York in the Revolutionary and Early Republic periods had their roots in the people who settled in Beverwyck.

They are right.

Understanding that Albany had a different cultural tradition from other colonies and communities, and how the people governed as though they lived in a quasi-independent city-state from the 1650s onward, provides important context and adds to my story.

In an attempt to provide the requested background, I needed to develop a deeper knowledge of New Netherland. This need prompted me to generate the reading list that I used for my Chapter 1 outline. The more I read the more this reading list/outline grew.

I became consumed with learning about every facet of life in New Netherland. The material was new and exciting; it wasn’t my project, which I have grown a bit tired of.

A friend’s intervention helped me close my books. We took stock of what I need to do in Chapter 1 and of what I really need to know to convey the one or two points I want to make.

In hindsight, I should have approached Chapter 1 with one or two key points to begin with.


A Well-Thought Out Outline

I did not dive into Chapter 2 after I shelved Chapter 1.

I took a week to consider what I need the chapter to do before I considered what information or characters I would include.

I realized that Chapter 2 needs to show how Albany became integrated into the burgeoning English empire. That story includes looking at why the English had coveted Albany, which they did for 3 reasons:

1. Geography: Albany sat as the Gateway to the North American continent, strategically positioned as to check English, French, and Native American encroachments.

Haudenosaunee Map

2. Economy: Its economy centered on the fur trade, which although in decline still proved quite lucrative to many traders.

3. Diplomacy: The fur trade-centered economy led to the Albanians’ strong diplomatic ties to the Haudenosaunee or Iroquios peoples. The English, French, and the Dutch had viewed the Haudenosaunee as the key to continental domination. Good relations between these peoples and the English empire was a must.

In essence, the English wanted Albany because the community played a key role in England’s (later Great Britain’s) plans to secure and dominate the North American continent.

I started my outline for Chapter 2 with these ideas. To them I added warfare as the Albanians also played an important role in the execution of King William’s War (1688-1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-17130, King George’s War (1744-1748), and the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Chapter 2 will include a discussion of at least the first two wars.

As I think people relate best to history when they can live vicariously through an historic person, I surveyed a couple of potential characters that I could use in my chapter.

I read a biography about Robert Livingston and looked at articles about few other fur traders who lived in Albany from 1664 (the English Conquest) through Queen Anne’s War. I used the details of the characters to help me flesh out the rest of my outline.

With ideas and goals in place, I combed through my first dissertation chapter and found that I have a good deal written about the wars and the 1664 conquest of New Netherland. Therefore, I will edit and flesh out what I have and devote my research time to other areas where I have little or no information that I can take from my dissertation.

With this work done, I am ready to write.


More Methodical Writing

I need to finish drafting Chapter 2 in a timely fashion.

The chapter doesn’t have to be perfect, but I need all of my ideas to be in place so I know where I need to pick up the story in Chapter 3.

Therefore, I am no longer setting daily word count goals. Instead, I am setting daily subsection goals.

I know in my head that I want to get at least 500 words on the page each day. And as I blow passed that minimum goal most days, I think it may be more effective for me to set daily subsection goals. For example, “Monday I will write about the 1664 Conquest of New Netherland. Tuesday I will write about the 1674 Re-conquest of New Netherland. Wednesday I will write about what Albany looked like when Robert Livingston arrived in January 1674/5.”



Will my setting daily subsection goals for my writing work?

I don’t know.

But as I strive to write a minimum of 500 words per day, it can’t hurt to see if this approach increases my productivity.

I will keep you posted.


Share Your Story

How do you approach outlining and daily writing goals? Do you have a process that works for you?