“Half the truth is often a great lie,” recorded Benjamin Franklin. Three-fifths of the truth isn’t much better. Here I try to lay out the full, relevant facts of the strange debate in the Colorado legislature over the three-fifths compromise. And I evaluate the significance of these facts as best I can.
By way of background, Rep. Ron Hanks, the Republican from Fremont County (west of Pueblo) who raised the ruckus over the compromise, previously made national news by marching toward the U.S. Capitol on January 6. That’s the day when hundreds of Donald Trump’s other political supporters violently assaulted the capitol building to try to disrupt the presidential election. So it’s reasonable to think Hanks doesn’t have the best judgment.
I was shocked when first I heard that Hanks had “joked” about lynching on the House floor. Sorry, there just isn’t a “joke” on that topic that can be remotely funny. Anyone confused on this point is welcome to check out the resources of the Legacy Museum by the Equal Justice Initiative.
What spurred the “joke” was that Hanks initially was introduced as Rep. Mike Lynch. Hanks started off, “Thank you Mr. Chair. Being called Mr. Lynch might be a good thing for what I’m about to say. No, just kidding.” It seems clear he was suggesting that what he planned to say would subject him to criticism. He was right about that!
But then I wondered why Hanks was pilloried for his comments about the three-fifths compromise. Here’s what he said, following remarks in support of the bill at hand, SB21-067, “Strengthening Civics Education”: “But I did want to say, though, and I don’t think this is contentious, but, going back to the Founding, and going back to the three-fifths [compromise], I heard the comments, and I appreciate them, and I respect them. But the three-fifths compromise, of course, was an effort by non-slave states to try to reduce the amount of representation that the slaves states had. It was not impugning anybody’s humanity. It was an effort to . . .”
Hanks, facing audible criticism, continued, “Well, it’s important to say. We had this conversation on one side, let’s talk about it on the other. Is this really racist to be talking about what the three-fifths compromise was? I don’t think so. And I think it’s important. It’s part of the civics lesson here. It was brought up, and it merits discussion. That was an effort by the North to keep the South from having too much representation and push slavery beyond. And ultimately it worked out. It took a war to do it. It took 600,000 American lives. It took a lot of treasure. That’s the kind of thing that ought to be taught.”
He continued: “Maybe this is a contentious issue. . . . I didn’t think it was when I came up and said it, but the hisses have proven me wrong. It’s something we ought to be talking about with civics education on a bill like this.”
Hanks’s core claim is that the three-fifths compromise was intended primarily to reduce the representation of slave states. And, on that point, he’s right. Rob Natelson, who, incidentally, taught Constitutional law for a quarter-century, makes that point. The Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia make the same point. No serious person disputes Hanks’s claims on this point of history.
Yet Hanks’s remark that the compromise “was not impugning anybody’s humanity” hardly captures the full context. The measure was not intended by the Northern states to impugn the humanity of slaves, but it certainly was a concession to slavery, which certainly did impugn the humanity of enslaved people. It was cold comfort to slaves that white people in their states had less representation in government due to the compromise, when slaves themselves had none, and indeed no legal protection of their rights at all.
Hanks suggested that someone else brought up the issue. To see what this was all about, I pulled up the legislative video from April 15. The relevant discussion starts at the 2:08:05 mark.
Following Rep. Terri Carver’s promotion of the bill, Rep. Richard Holtorf took the floor to condemn “anarchist movements” and “cancel culture movements” that resulted in (among other things) the removal of a statue that used to be in front of the state capitol that memorialized Union troops in the Civil War. The controversy was that some of the soldiers in question also participated in the Sand Creek Massacre. Although all the legislators who spoke supported the bill, clearly Republicans were picking a fight.
A bit later Rep. Jennifer Bacon took the floor to answer Holtorf, and she’s the one who first reference the three-fifths compromise. I quote her at length:
“I have to say as someone who was recognized as three-fifths, we do need to understand each other when we talk about these things. I would say that the founding of this country was rooted in protest. The Boston Tea Party wasn’t neat. Maybe they went to capitols and yelled at King George.
“And the things that we see in our communities happening, we can do two things about it. One, we can help our communities and our students understand the structure of this country, the rules and policies, so we can know how to engage. . . . Or we can respect it, because what is also deeply rooted in this Constitution are the freedoms of speech, are the freedoms of assembly.
“And just because we talk about it, doesn’t mean that we want to cancel someone else. At the end of the day, we have to understand how rules and policies affected everyone. Whether I can be considered a full, whole person, as a woman be allowed to vote, as a Black woman be allowed to vote without paying. But just because we acknowledge that, which are not only the original sins of this country but the original hopes and beacons that we have put on across the world, part of this problem that we have is because we don’t understand those fundamental values, and we put them in boxes to where only some people can lean into them or not. . . .
“But we need to talk about this together, that there’s something to be said about the literacy of power in this country, and all the steps that were taken to keep people from it. And so, introducing civics is a way to restore that. So that we can have the conversations about what it means to be American, without being indicted, because you’re doing the things that are fundamentally American, like protesting. Because without it, I literally would not be able to stand here today. It took all of our lives to fight. And so I hope that we can recognize that in each other. I am willing, I ask you to do the same.”
Bacon’s remarks are powerful and worth paying attention to. (At the same time, I worry she glosses over violence and vandalism in the streets by rolling those into “protest.”)
What Bacon was not doing was offering a history lesson on the three-fifths compromise. She wasn’t denying the basic historical point that Hanks later brought up. Instead, she was making the broader point that slaves were not recognized as fully human, something that the Constitution’s initial concessions to slavery reinforced or at least failed to rectify. And she was pointing out that, even after the abolition of slavery, the road toward just and equal treatment under the law for Black Americans has been a long and hard one.
Hanks, as they say, was not reading the room. If he really thought the history lesson was important, he certainly should not have started off with a “joke” about lynching, and he should have led with the fact that early American government failed to recognize the human rights of slaves.
I was going to end with a song and dance about how various news outlets (I’m looking at you, Denver Post and 9News) basically flubbed the story and treated it like click-bait at the expense of much of the meaningful discussion. But then I thought it would suffice just for me to lay out the basic facts of the story, and I think I’ve at least indicated its richness.
As you might have gathered, Ron Hanks is far from my favorite legislator. Still, he unintentionally did something helpful by drawing attention to this interesting discussion about civics education within the Colorado legislature. Colorado parents and teachers could do worse than watch with their students the half-hour video of the discussion about the bill. It’s a civics lesson in itself.
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.