Most Americans understand the 3/5ths clause of the Constitution, which allowed slaves to be partially counted towards Congressional representation, as a compromise without which our nation would not have formed. At worst, we are taught, the clause delayed a serious debate over slavery, kicking the proverbial can down the road. This is a half-truth for, in reality, the clause gave a tremendous amount of power to southern slaveholding states. Southern representatives wielded this power to spread slavery and protect their interests. The devastating Indian Removal Act of 1830 is a case in point.
Andrew Jackson is well-known as the architect of Indian Removal. A long process of territorial seizures and cessions lay behind the eventual passage of the legislation, but Jackson brought new energy to the idea of pushing native peoples west. He made Removal the centerpiece of his administration. As Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, noted, “There was no measure, in the whole course of his administration, of which he was more exclusively the author than this.” Despite some hesitation in his party, Jackson pushed the legislation through Congress. It’s unclear what would have happened if Jackson lacked congressional support. Without the Indian Removal Act, native peoples in the American South might have still suffered terrible injustices, and Jackson might have found ways to sidestep the legislature. But here’s what we do know. The Indian Removal Act narrowly survived the House, where it passed by just five votes, 102-97. The House vote on Removal fell along sectional lines, as free states voted against Removal 41-82, while slave states voted in favor 61-15. Without the inflated representation from the 3/5ths clause, the slave states would have fallen short, and the Indian Removal Act would not have passed through Congress.
While Indian Removal concerned a number of native nations, the citizens of the Cherokee Nation became its foremost targets, positioned as they were on some of Georgia’s most fertile and productive land. A short lived gold rush placed even more political pressure on Cherokee land owners. The Cherokee, who had adopted a national constitution, a printing press, large-scale agriculture, and even African slavery, condemned Jackson’s plans. They argued that an entire nation could not be displaced to gratify the greed of its American neighbors. Abolitionists who wanted to end racial slavery also rallied against Removal, seeing it as an attempt by the southern planters to expand chattel slavery to new lands. In an 1831 edition of The Liberator, editor William Lloyd Garrison argued that the displacement of native peoples and the survival of slavery went hand-in-hand.
Political resistance to Indian Removal worked, and in 1832, after a long legal battle, the Supreme Court decided that the Cherokee were entitled to their land and political independence. But Jackson refused to enforce the court’s decision, and white Georgians continued to harass the Cherokee and encroach on their territory. The state of Georgia auctioned off Cherokee land, despite the fact it was still occupied. In response, and in hopes of securing permanent land holdings in the West, a small group of Cherokee elites signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which accepted the terms of Removal. Jackson used this treaty to justify the wholesale expulsion of all the Cherokee. In 1838, federal troops rounded up the Cherokee who had not yet left for the West and forced them into temporary detention camps. The Georgia Guard had hastily constructed the makeshift prisons after the passage of Indian Removal in 1830, and with federal assistance, they proceeded to pack upwards of one thousand Cherokee into each one. Disease and scarcity ran rampant. In some cases, land-hungry Georgians followed the troops, ransacking Cherokee property before the former residents were out of sight. Already weakened, groups of Cherokee set out on the trip to Indian Territory hungry and despairing. The United States army was woefully unprepared to support the trek, and thousands of Cherokee suffered from exposure, hunger, and illness. The soldiers, who also suffered from the elements, took out their frustration on the Cherokee. When asked about Removal in the 1930s, Bettie Woodall recalled one of her mother’s stories in which a soldier on the trail could not stand the incessant cries of an infant so he grabbed the child from its mother and smacked its head against a tree until it stopped. All told, some four thousand Cherokee died in the process of Removal.
The abolitionists were right that Removal would enable slavery to expand. In the aftermath of Removal, the newly-vacant land in Georgia and elsewhere in the South became some of the most profitable cotton-producing land in the world. Southern elites established massive plantations on former Indian land and created new demand for slave labor. Opportunists flocked to the lucrative business of moving black bodies from the Upper South to the Cotton Kingdom. Slave trading firms sprang up overnight, and capital poured in. At a time when slave markets were beginning to stall, Indian Removal reinvigorated the internal slave trade. From the decade before Removal to the Civil War, traders marched and shipped nearly one million enslaved people to the Deep South.
The 3/5ths clause did not make this tragic series of events inevitable, but it ensured that the political power of southern states would be bolstered so long as slavery endured.