Atlas Shrugged: The Three-Fifths Compromise

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter II

Let me make one thing clear, to begin with: I don’t think Ayn Rand was an unintelligent person. She was fiercely dogmatic in her opinions, quick to anger, possessed an enormous ego, and rarely if ever forgave. She also had more than a few intellectual blind spots, which I’ve been pointing out throughout this series. But I believe she put real thought into her moral system, flawed as it is, and had a genuine desire to be taken seriously as a philosopher.

I say all this as a prelude to today’s post, in which Rand manages to write one of the most fantastically stupid sentences I’ve ever seen committed to paper. It comes right at the end of Francisco’s wedding-speech filibuster. And here it is:

“When you have made evil the means of survival, do not expect men to remain good. Do not expect them to stay moral and lose their lives for the purpose of becoming the fodder of the immoral. Do not expect them to produce, when production is punished and looting rewarded. Do not ask, ‘Who is destroying the world?’ You are.

…Throughout men’s history, money was always seized by looters of one brand or another, whose names changed, but whose method remained the same: to seize wealth by force and to keep the producers bound, demeaned, defamed, deprived of honor. That phrase about the evil of money, which you mouth with such righteous recklessness, comes from a time when wealth was produced by the labor of slaves – slaves who repeated the motions once discovered by somebody’s mind and left unimproved for centuries. So long as production was ruled by force, and wealth was obtained by conquest, there was little to conquer. Yet through all the centuries of stagnation and starvation, men exalted the looters, as aristocrats of the sword, as aristocrats of birth, as aristocrats of the bureau, and despised the producers, as slaves, as traders, as shopkeepers – as industrialists.

To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money – and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being – the self-made man – the American industrialist.

No fortunes by conquest in America? No slave labor in America? Really?

I have to ask: Did Ayn Rand ever read the Constitution of the country whose praises she sings? Because if she had, she might have noticed that Article 1, Section 2 says this:

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.

That phrase “all other Persons” is a vague catch-all, thrown like a sheet over an ugly reality: America was founded as a nation of slavery. It’s true that the industrialists and inventors came along later – although I suspect the claim that America was the first time and place they ever existed is debatable at best – but they weren’t there from the beginning. Before the cotton gin, before the electric light bulb, before the Wright brothers, before the Model T, there were the plantations and the enslaved people who labored on them: millions of people who could be sold and traded like cargo, who could be raped, brutalized or killed at a whim, who labored all their lives to make their owners rich and got nothing for it, and who were counted as less than fully human by their own government.

Slavery wasn’t a minor peccadillo, an insignificant footnote to Francisco’s peroration. It was the major source of wealth in the country’s first few decades: in the first half of the 19th century, the total market value of human beings held in bondage was greater than all the country’s banks, factories and railroads combined. On the eve of the Civil War, slaves were about 16% of all the wealth in the country. In today’s dollars, that would be $10 trillion.

Slavery was America’s original sin, and it took a bloody, brutal war to abolish it; and even with that, its poisonous effects still linger on. If you want to argue, as Abraham Lincoln did, that America paid a high price to expiate that crime and that we now know better, so be it. But it’s an insult to our national memory to gloss it over, to pretend that it never existed. There were “fortunes by conquest” in America – the native people who were displaced from the land; the enslaved people who were set to work that land – and much of our early wealth, perhaps much of our modern wealth, can be traced back to that.

Of course, it would throw a wrench into Rand’s history-as-morality-play sermon to admit that America was a major source of the slavery she so despised. But that’s not an excuse; it’s just a further illustration of how the real world contains more than she dreamt of in her philosophy, and refuses to conform to the simplistic scheme of bright whites and dark blacks that she sets out for it.

Image: An anti-slavery woodcut, originally created by the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England, adapted by the American Anti-Slavery Society for John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem “Our Countrymen in Chains“; image via Library of Congress

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BeaverTales

    As a European and a Jew (and fortunately as far as her legacy was concerned) she at least went down on paper as opposed to traditional American racism. Much has been written about her views on race, both critically as a proponent of racism and as a champion of civil rights.

    As is often the case with her views, the truth is much more complicated and the extremist perspectives can be both right and wrong in characterizing her. For being so uncompromising on many of her perspectives, she seemed particularly adept at ignoring inconvenient historical details, and many social injustices that are ‘rationalized’ as a consequence of her philosophy.

    One of the blind spots worth mentioning is that she was also completely ignorant of the fact that without government mandates imposed on public institutions, religion and history were always going to trump the “free market” of ideas in order to preserve racist institutions and attitudes.

    Unfortunately, people on both sides of the political spectrum have largely ignored the legacy of “America’s Original Sin”, and only bring it up as a tool to demonize someone or some institution when convenient for them. The fight for true social justice has become marginalized as a result.

  • 8DX

    Hmmm, perhaps if Rand had thought for a moment, she might have realised that her industrialists were perpetuating fortune-by-slavery, before the advent of unions and work-condition regulations.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    The first paragraph of the quotation sounds like paraphrased Nietzsche. I wonder why she never acknowledged her debt to him, yet did to Aquinas.

    Maybe some former Objectivists can chime in here, but I remember there was an essay by Robert Hessen regarding women and children in the Industrial Revolution. I think he was trying to maintain that being forced off the farm was actually good for all those folks, which I believe is another example of Objectivism ignoring inconvienient truths.

  • Greg Lively

    Ayn Rand and her followers would probably argue that the days of slavery “didn’t count” as it came before the Industrial Revolution and the all-too-short-lived exaltation of intellect and inventors. Of course, that still ignores how bad things were for workers before unions and the ongoing persecution and forced relocation of Native Americans right up through the early-mid twentieth century.

  • Alex SL

    there were no fortunes-by-conquest

    Wait… wasn’t she the one who said that the native Americans didn’t deserve their land? How was that not conquest?

    Another thing is that she thinks in black and white (as usual). The idea that all other countries are built 100% on slavery or serfdom and the USA 100% on free capitalism, or that one country could swap from 100% serfdom to 100% free capitalism at some moment is ludicrous. All economies are mixed, and have been so for a long time.

    Third, I notice yet another way in which Rand’s ideology is merely an upside down version of Marxism. Marx also considered free capitalism and monetary economies to be progress compared to serfdom, and he also considered people being forced off their farms to be a form of progress: Die Bourgeoisie hat das Land der Herrschaft der Stadt unterworfen. Sie hat enorme Städte geschaffen, sie hat die Zahl der städtischen Bevölkerung gegenüber der ländlichen in hohem Grade vermehrt und so einen bedeutenden Teil der Bevölkerung dem Idiotismus des Landlebens entrissen.

    Really if sometimes looks as if she just took communism and said: everything they consider morally good must be evil, and everything they consider evil must really be good, and the rest was rationalisation. What a great philosopher.

  • Michael

    I think that you mean Aristotle, not Aquinas (Aquinas, like most Medieval Christian scholars, was influenced by Aristotle).

  • Michael

    The Industrial Revolution actually started while slavery was still a going concern (some have argued it help end it, but from what I’ve read that seems dubious).

  • Michael

    I think that is a good summary of her philosophy, and it was the same for the United States-she despised her home country and lover her adopted country, without qualification.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    You’re right, but she still listed Aquinas as one of the very few “good guys” in the philosophical tradition. Maybe she needed some sort of philosophical trigger for the Renaissance?

  • Michael

    That’s odd, as he spent much of his work on logical proofs of God, which she didn’t accept.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    It sure is odd. Rand bought into the idea that the whole history of philosophy should be understood as a cosmic struggle between the Platonists and the Aristotelians. In the middle ages, that struggle manifests itself as Augustine the Platonist vs Aquinas, the Aristotelian. The problem is that medieval scholasticism, as you note, doesn’t have much to do with the parts of Aristotle that she liked.

  • Michael

    I guess it’s not surprising she didn’t know that much about it. Simplifying it down into “Platonists vs. Aristotelians” shows some obvious lack of knowledge as well.

  • X. Randroid

    Yes, Robert Hessen did write that essay; it was reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I’m not qualified to pick it apart in detail (nor would this be the forum for that), but the whole thing smells like a smokescreen.

    Basically, the party line is that pre-industrial life was clearly worse for the average person by every measurable standard: higher child mortality rates, longer working hours, children as young as three toiling night and day, less safe working conditions, rat-infested hovels filled with looms and pollution. People flocked to factory jobs whenever they became available because factory jobs were clearly safer and paid much better than any other option. Factories, and their owners, weren’t at all oppressive, and child labor law originated to protect chimney sweeps (not a factory job!) and also orphans, so there! What finally ended child labor was not legislation; it was the fact that the family no longer needed the money the children had been earning. A parallel story is told of how much better off women were, mostly because factory work increased their independence.

    And, of course, anyone who disagrees is an evil anti-industrial, anti-material medieval spiritualist or a Marxist … or something.

  • X. Randroid

    it’s just a further illustration of how the real world contains more than she dreamt of in her philosophy, and refuses to conform to the simplistic scheme of bright whites and dark blacks that she sets out for it.

    And that is the fundamental problem of Rand’s philosophy. She insists on black and white, “A or non-A,” as an absolute necessity of all human cognition. Everything must be “essentialized,” i.e., reduced to black-and-white, because only then can the human mind properly make sense of it, only then can you achieve any knowledge at all.

    Ironically, she then goes on to insist that this ability to essentialize is what refutes the claim that the mind can only perceive a distorted reality.

  • Alex SL

    This is not an official translation from its time but my own quick solution now:
    The bourgeoisie (capitalist ruling class) has subjected the countryside to the rule of the city. It has created enormous cities, it has multiplied the urban population compared to the rural one and in that way brought a significant part of the population out of the idiocy of rural / farm life.

  • Nemo

    I’m going to have to play Ayn’s Advocate here. The Northern states, which did ban slavery, were the industrial powerhouses that of course Ayn would love, whereas the South was running on the equivalent of feudalism.
    Admittedly, Northern laborers in the factories didn’t have it so well either, and Northern factories benefitted from the products of Southern slavery. And I take issue with Francisco claiming the upper class industrialists of modern times are the equivalent of the lower class slaves and laborers of preindustrial times.

  • Metalix Knightmare

    Actually, Rand was fully aware of the plight of the Native Americans. She just felt they deserved it.

  • J-D

    You can’t say there are no fortunes by conquest in a country which was created by conquest. The whole of the territory of the United States was acquired by force.

  • J-D

    The Three-Fifths clause is not a good illustration of the flagrant obviousness of slavery. Nobody reading that clause without background information would ever guess that it referred to slaves (this was hardly an accident).

  • Tova Rischi

    It starts by describing free citizens (including verteran but excluding non-taxpaying Native Americans) and then puts all other citizens in the 3/5s category.

    What else is there except free and not free? What else is there except enslaved and not enslaved?

  • Tova Rischi

    I’m very very far from an expert, but it was my impression that Nietzsche liked to play the kind of games where he wrote like a mystic and layered everything in purposefully self-contradicting metaphor, so that everyone from nazis to (some of the more pessimistic) commies to rampant capitalists and everyone around and in between could cite him as an influence (well, everyone with a sense for melodramatic writing flirting with nihilism; every brooding teen). Or, everyone gets out of him what they want.

    It might be that she was aware of that, and chose to “cite” something more radical to his beliefs (radical = at the root, basal) to avoid the argument. Then again, her platform might be the long love letter to her Nietsche – he’s kinda the one who made “turn your philosophy into a novel” popular.

  • J-D

    _I_ know what it means, and obviously _you_ know what it means, but please try this simple experiment.

    Show the text to people who are _not_ familiar with US history, and ask them ‘Do you understand what this is about?’

  • Doug Langley

    Hi, everyone. An ex-Randroid here. When I was young & dumb, I read everything Rand wrote. I thought she was amazing . . . until I started studying economics, history, and current events, and realized she didn’t have a clue. Just stumbled across this site – fascinating work, Adam, I’ll definitely be joining in.

    In all of her writings, I only recall one place where she mentioned slavery. Just one or two sentences in her newsletter about it being a great evil, but we fought a war over it and that ended it. So she was aware of it – but that still doesn’t explain Francisco’s peculiar statement. Her history was really mixed up – building a transcontinental rail without government money and such. I get the impression she kept confabulating fantasy with reality – this was history as she wanted it to be.

  • Doug Langley

    I recall that Nathaniel Brandon also wrote a similar essay with the same theme. Probably Alan Greenspan too, but can’t remember a specific article.

  • James Jarvis

    I think her argument was use it or loose it. The Native Americans weren’t using the land so it was fair game to who ever could use it. The my neighour wasn’t

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    I don’t think her view was “use it or loose it”; more “use it how I think you should use it or loose it”. The Native Americans were using the land, just not the way Rand would have likely viewed it as productive, namely by squeezing it for every resource that could be bled out of it.

  • James Jarvis

    That’s what I was trying to say.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Wait… wasn’t she the one who said that the native Americans didn’t deserve their land? How was that not conquest?

    Let’s not forget the roughly half of Mexico we conquered. Were the Mexicans unworthy savages too? Probably.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    That is some serious crazy. Wrong and backwards in almost every particular. (I know they’re not your ideas.)

    In case anyone cares, the industrial revolution was preceded by an agricultural revolution, which caused agriculture productivity to rise and prices to fall. People flocked to the cities looking for work because there was no other way to make a living (the end of the plagues also meant more people). A large pool of cheap, unskilled labor was a necessary precondition for the industrial revolution. The idea that benevolent capitalists built the factories first and then lured the country folk in with the promise of better working conditions (Jobs for 4-year-olds picking up bits of cloth from under running machines! Only 96 hours a week!) is surreal.

  • X. Randroid

    True as far as it goes. But I think it’s fair to assume Rand was familiar with US history; she certainly claimed to be. I have no doubt that she knew who “three-fifths of all other Persons” referred to. She just didn’t care. In her mind, slavery was a minor aberration in a generally free country. (Which says more about her mind than about US history.)

  • X. Randroid

    Close, but not quite. Rand was emphatically not a utilitarian, and the key question for her was not who would make best use of the land. The real issue was whether the society had a “proper” system of property rights, by which she meant that every plot of land should an individual owner who has final and absolute say over what does or doesn’t happen on that land. The Native Americans instead practiced “collective ownership” by a tribe (I think that’s inexact, but that’s how Rand saw it). This was “improper” and “immoral” and a violation of the rights of the individual tribe members. And that, in a nutshell, is why the Native Americans “deserved” to lose the land, to anyone who would better protect “individual rights.”

    In contrast, if an environmental group like the Nature Conservancy starts buying up land to create open space preserves, Rand would say this was stupid and irrational: a waste of resources. But, assuming the transactions were voluntary (no government coercion or tax money involved), she would not say that anyone else had the right to take the land from the NC, regardless of what they do with it, because they have properly established ownership.

    If we’re going to criticize (and please do), we might as well get the details right.

  • X. Randroid

    Yep, Rand decided slavery wasn’t “essential” to America, so she pretty much ignored it: an aberration, but it’s over now and definitely not important in the scheme of things.

    Heller’s bio, “Ayn Rand and the World She Made,” was aptly titled.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    Thanks for the correction. I thought her justification had something to do with the Native American’s misuse or mismanagement of the land. Then again, enough of her justifications seem so wonky and contradictory that it’s hard to keep track of them.

  • J-D

    I can’t imagine that Ayn Rand had no knowledge of the US history of slavery. But that’s my point. With background knowledge, she may well have understood the Three-Fifths clause; my point is that nobody (including Ayn Rand) would have acquired any knowledge of slavery in US history just from reading the Three-Fifths clause.

    If you say ‘She must have known, so she must have understood the Three-Fifths clause’, I don’t argue with you. But if you say ‘She must have known: all she had to do was read the Three-Fifths clause’, then I take issue.

  • Doug Langley

    Haven’t had a chance to read Heller’s book. I did read Barbara Brandon’s bio, are they very different?

  • Doug Langley

    Rand had a remarkable tendency to reject something she didn’t agree with. There are articles in her newsletters where she would review a non fiction book and comment “of course, that couldn’t have happened, here’s what REALLY happened”.

  • X. Randroid

    Heller has an outsider’s perspective, which Branden couldn’t really provide, having been so close to her subject for so many years. It’s been ages since I read Branden’s bio, but I seem to recall parts of it reading more like memoir—how Rand affected her. (Not nearly so much as Nathaniel Branden’s memoir—which isn’t intended to be a Rand bio—but there was something of that same quality to it.)

    Heller also did quite a bit of research and dug up information (especially about Rand’s early years) that Barbara Branden either didn’t know or didn’t include. I found it fascinating to read.

  • Science Avenger

    Rand also claimed capitalism ended slavery.

  • Doug Langley

    Just read the Amazon reviews of Heller’s book. Fascinating. Would love to get a copy, if money wasn’t so tight.

    I always considered Barbara’s involvement a plus, since we got a first hand account of what was going on, at least at one point in Rand’s life. It was hard to verify the times in Russia, but Rand spoke about what she remembered, so that gave us a view on what was important to her.

    I was struck by the fact that Barbara suffered from her friendship with Rand, but wrote a bio that tried to be generous, so it seemed to be objective.

    And yeah – Nathanial’s memoir was godawful.

  • Speedwell

    Oh. boy, not this again. Folks, the whole US did not get together to insult and dehumanize slaves by proposing that they be considered less than full human beings. It’s exactly backwards of what most people think it is.

    The slave states wanted every slave counted as a full person for representation, even though slaves could not vote, because that made wealthy plantation owners disproportionately influential; they got, in effect, their own votes augmented by the addition of the proxy vote of every slave. Counting slaves as fully represented individuals did not mean that the plantation owners considered them full citizens with full human rights.

    The free states were against the slaves being counted AT ALL because they knew what the slave states were up to, and because it struck some as incorrect to count slaves as represented for voting purposes when they could not legally vote. Not counting slaves as fully represented individuals had nothing to do with whether or not the free states considered them full human beings.

    Don’t forget that women could not vote at all, slave or free. No three-fifths clause for women; there wasn’t even a debate about it.