06/09/2013 07:40 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

Original Sin and the American Constitution

The late French historian, François Furet, observed that Americans regard their Constitution as a "Sacred Arch." Unquestionably, the Constitution is the major rallying point for this country of diverse populations and a relatively short history.

In The New York Times of 9 June, Adam Clymer wrote of two groundbreaking speeches by John F. Kennedy on successive days, 10 and 11 June 1963. The first dealt with upcoming negotiations with the USSR and the second with civil rights in the U.S. On the second speech, Clymer wrote:

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution," Kennedy said. "The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

But the original Constitution contained very different language which took nearly a hundred years and a Civil War to amend. Call it, if you will, the original sin of the American Constitution. According to Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, "Representatives...shall be apportioned among the several States...according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of Free Persons...three-fifths of all other persons."

The Fourteenth Amendment, following the Civil War, eliminated the above language and substituted the following: "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state..."

What the original Constitution did was to implicitly recognize slavery and to put down in black and white for history what was part of the genesis of the American republic. In addition, it negated the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." And last but not least, it gave the impression that a black man was worth three-fifths of a white man. (Indians were not part of the counting and were not taxed).

Part of the reasoning behind this unfortunate "three-fifths" formula was that it was a sweetener for the southern states to enter the Union. By thus swelling the numbers in counting their representatives, the South was able to establish a political ascendancy that lasted until the Civil War.