Tuesday, July 13, 2021



For years now, I've displayed the "Junk Science" badge for "science" assertions that are ridiculous and unscientific. I have a new logo to display: "Junk History". And its first awardee is a surprising one to me... it's the CrashCourse YouTube channel, which on July 10, 2021 posted a disgraceful array of misinformation regarding the Constitution of the United States.

The episode focuses on two clauses of the Constitution... the 3/5 Compromise and the Slave Trade clause. But before we discuss those, let's have a look at the introduction.


The narrator (Clint Smith) begins with an analogy that I would not disagree with. In fact, I'd use it myself. However, he uses in a context that has very little to do with historical facts and motivations. The analogy is the difference between wanting to be a wrestler and actually being one. "Sometimes in life, who we say we want to be is not necessarily who we are in that moment." Fair enough, and it does apply to the Constitution at our nation's founding, one hundred percent. And stating that "for millions of people, the aspirations espoused in that document didn't apply to them" is true. But then it runs off the rails slightly more than one minute into the video, with this: "And not only did it not apply to them, but it further entrenched the racial caste system that was already in place." This last part is pure misinformation, as the Constitution did exactly, precisely the opposite with those two aforementioned clauses. But we're not there yet. Let's keep watching. He concludes the intro with "Who America says it is and who America has actually been have not always been neatly aligned." 


We're still less than two minutes into a 10 minute video when we're told that "there were millions of people who called the United States home who, in many ways, became even less free following the ratification of the Constitution." Again this is misinformation. You don't get less free than abject slavery, and the Constitution did nothing to make anyone less free.

Smith notes that "The Constitution was intended to solidify the legal principles of a nation." He goes on to state that in the Constitution the founders "failed to do away with slavery." This isn't exactly misinformation, but it's so horribly incomplete that even the narrator himself appears to be woefully ignorant of the actual purpose of the two clauses he's about to examine. 

Slavery is a shameful institution wherever it exists. And, as noted in the video, the words "slavery" and "slave" don't appear in the Constitution. This isn't because it's just being swept under the rug out of embarrassment; but for two other reasons. 

The first is that it is not a legal principle of this new nation, and never was. It was, however, a legal reality. If it was at all possible to eradicate slavery with the sweep of a pen, many of the Founders would have chosen to do so. But it wasn't possible. Remember, the independence they were fighting for was independence from British rule, and it is this that joined the Colonies into one nation. But they were divided on many other things, thus becoming a rather fragile alliance. 

What's also completely glossed over in the Crash Course is that this fragility was not just suspected, but well known. The Constitutional Convention wasn't our first attempt at unification. It was preceded by the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781. Rather than a truly United States, the Articles established a "league of friendship", but remained independent bodies. Effectively, each colony was a separate country, similar to the situation we see in the European Union today. It is in this context that the word "States" applies. These were independent States joined by what was effectively a treaty. They weren't truly united yet, despite the name. And this was the situation until 1789.

What the delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew was that this fragile alliance was not good enough. It was of paramount importance to create a new nation, united despite their glaring differences. It is exceedingly naive to suppose they could do that without compromise. It's literally impossible as they found out. 

People of modern sensibilities want change, not now, but yesterday, and a hundred years before that. Every crisis is immediate. They don't have a long-term vision of the future. And they have even less vision of the past, being incapable of noticing when the policies of one administration are identical to the previous one. That's not how change happens, especially in the 18th century. Compromises would have to be made with the understanding that the principles espoused for the new nation would come to fruition in the future. And that's where the two clauses come in.

It is true that almost seventy years after the Constitution was written, an abolitionist (William Lloyd Garrison) expressed disgust with the compromises that had to be made. Well guess what? The people who made them didn't like them either. But it was the best they could accomplish. 

To call back to the Smith's analogy: 

wanting to be a wrestler may not make you one, 

but training, hard work and time can.

Smith naively states, "It didn't have to be this way. The Founders could have used this as an opportunity to say, hey, look. Let's start this experiment fresh. You know what, team, we inherited slavery from the British, we just fought a war of independence, and that probably means we should make everyone independent." 

The problem with this is that it's exactly this sentiment that was expressed by the Northern states at the Constitutional Convention. And, as with being a wrestler, saying it doesn't make it so. Without compromise, the Southern States would not agree to join the Union.

Remember... at this time there was. no. union. Each of the Colonies had their own laws and were far more independent than today.  To attempt what Smith suggests would have been to go directly from a War of Independence to another war. And it would not have been a "Civil War" either... there was no single nation. It would have been a war between nascent independent nations. This simply would not have happened.

But what would?

Let's indulge in a little Alternate History speculation. One of two things might have happened if the Constitutional Convention failed. The first is the separate States would remain separate. We wouldn't have a United States, but another Europe broken up into squabbling factions. The European Union is a recent phenomenon... just look at the history of warfare on that continent. The second is that we may have had two unions formed from the Colonies... one with slaves, one without. And in the South they may well have continued slavery to the present day. Without unity, the separate States would be more prone to invasion; and without the United States, the history of the entire world would have suffered greatly. The Founders knew nothing of the future, but they did know their vulnerabilities. We know this because the Constitution wasn't created in a vacuum. We have other documents, including the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, detailing the arguments that were made regarding every little clause. And these arguments are ignored by CrashCourse. It's not a matter of skipping over the unimportant parts. Rather, they're skipping the most important ones.

That leads to the second reason the word "slavery" doesn't appear in the Constitution. The need for unity. The Southern states would not ratify a Constitution that outlawed slavery, while the Northern states wouldn't ratify one that included it. So it isn't mentioned, except indirectly, as the implied opposite of "free persons".

Now let's talk about those two clauses, and especially the motivations for including them.

The Three-Fifths Clause

Smith, with the aid of an mis-infographic, states "The Three-Fifths Compromise: A clause in the Constitution that defined enslaved individuals as 3/5 of a human." This is completely untrue.

Nowhere does the Constitution even imply that a slave is three-fifths of a person. Rather, it states that for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, three fifths of non-free people (i.e. slaves) would be counted. That's three-fifths of a number of whole persons. Not that each slave was three-fifths of a person. 

The narrator himself notes that his own interpretation is absurd, but that doesn't stop him from saying it. The Founders didn't put nonsensical clauses in the Constitution. They meant three-fifths of the total, and that's exactly what they wrote. Saying otherwise is misinformation, plain and simple. 

The actual purpose of that clause was to restrict the influence of the wealthy Southern slave owners. Otherwise they would be overly represented in Congress. Remember that there wasn't a single slave that these slave owners truly represented. Rather, they represented their own interests. To pretend that it was to restrict the representation of Black slaves is to pretend that these slaves had any representation at all, and this is a most egregious lie. And on declaring independence, one of the charges levied against King George III was taxation without representation. To have slave owners wield the power of unrepresented persons didn't sit well at all with the Northern delegates.

Further, CrashCourse portrays this as a Northern attempt to restrict representation of Blacks in the South rather than slave owners. This -- honest to God, there's no other way to say this -- is a shameful, despicable, deliberate twisting of the truth. Had this clause not be included, all new territories would have become slave states. The clause was to curb the influence of slave owners and restrict the spread of slavery, plain and simple.

Everything else said about this clause in CrashCourse is based on their lie, and is complete nonsense, such as this:

"Even though the South would have loved for Black people to fully count for political purposes, this legislative compromise, which turned Black people into fractions, came to serve as a larger metaphor for the way that Black people were seen by many as less than human."

It is astonishing to me that CrashCourse found a Black narrator ignorant enough to make that statement. If the South would have loved for Black people to fully count for political purposes, they would have given them the vote. Here he is explicitly siding with Southern White supremacist slaveholders rather than those in the North who opposed slavery in its entirety. With a straight face and a steady voice Smith sides with White supremacists. You usually have to read Orwell to witness that level of twisted, perverted logic.

Smith continues with more nonsense. As for the election of 1800, he claims that "many historians argue" that Thomas Jefferson would not have won without the 3/5 compromise, even though the states that went for Jefferson would not have changed their votes. He already had the support of the Southern states with the compromise, and there is no historical evidence whatsoever that the outcome he actually achieved would have changed had there been even more Southern Whites in the Electoral College. 

Let's repeat: SLAVES HAD NO REPRESENTATION IN GOVERNMENT. Why would any in the abolitionist North be in favor of handing power to their oppressors? The North was against it, not because they thought Blacks were "fractions" of a person, but because they opposed slavery. So they pushed for as good a compromise as they could at the time. Work it out. Do the math. Then ask yourself, what part of what Smith asserts is not completely stupid? Be prepared to back it up, though quite frankly, you'll find that level of preparation impossible to achieve.

The Slave Trade Clause. 

Spoiler: he doesn't do any better here.

The text of the Constitution says, 

"The Migration of Importation of such Persons [meaning slaves] as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars per person."

Smith explains, "This is basically a really fancy way of saying that the Federal government can not limit how many individuals were imported to the United States." 

More accurately, it's a really plain way of saying that the Southern states had until 1808 to end the practice. And that's exactly how it panned out. In 1807 Congress passed a law abolishing the importation of slaves. This took effect in 1808, at the earliest possible moment allowed by the Constitution. Again, not so much as one Black took part in that vote. Were the Founders as racist as depicted, it could not have passed. At all. Ever.

Also If CrashCourse's interpretation was correct, you'd expect a last-minute flood of imported slaves. In actuality, between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. In all that time -- a span of 341 years -- how many were shipped to North America? 

Answer: 388 thousand. Three percent spread over 400 years. (To put this in perspective the Mali emperor, Mansa Musa, took 12,000 slaves with him on a single trip to Mecca. Trading slaves in Africa had a long history among Africans long before Europeans became customers. And some Africans enslave others even to this day.)

388 thousand still too many kidnappings for my taste no matter how long it was spread out, and no matter whether it was imposed or not. But historically, the US slave trade was domestic. Except for that three percent, the rest of the slaves were born and raised here.

So why is that number important? Because Smith states that it "allowed for slavery to exist in the South where it directly sustained the economy, and allowed slavery to remain illegal at the local level where it had already been abolished." 

This is nonsense. Again, slavery by this time was a domestic enterprise. It didn't need that three percent to allow it to exist. Nevertheless, kidnapping human beings from their homeland and transporting them across the Atlantic was abominable, and the Constitution put a date on the end of that practice. CrashCourse's assertion that Southern states relied on the transatlantic slave trade to replenish high death rates is again nonsensical. The numbers simply don't support it. Who did support the Slave trade were the bigoted slave owners, but their excuses for doing so were specious at best. Rather than call them out based on the economic facts, CrashCourse again takes the White supremacists' arguments at face value. 

In his conclusion, Smith continues, speaking of the Founders: "It's important to understand who was and who wasn't included in their vision for this new nation: who would be the beneficiaries of this promise of Democracy, and whose bodies would be used and cast aside in pursuit of them."

Indeed. And it's as important to know that the Founders had a road map for that. It was an actual vision. They limited the influence of slaveholders from Day One. They put a limit on the transatlantic slave trade. And their grandchildren died by the hundreds of thousands to free Black slaves when many of them from the North had never even seen a Black person in their lives. 

In recent years, Black people in this country are taught to embrace victimhood, with arguably reasonable cause. Many of their ancestors were born and bred in captivity. That is not an excuse to do as CrashCourse does and brush aside those who had a vision for a better future as well as those who argued and literally fought and died to make it happen simply because it's convenient to paint everyone, North and South, racist or not, as racists. And it's certainly no excuse for espousing supremacist arguments under the pretense of educating.

This CrashCourse is race-baiting and supports White supremacist arguments. It ascribes the wrong motivations to the wrong people, and misrepresents historical facts. So for blatant historical malfeasance, the CrashCourse channel gets my first "Junk History" badge. 

May they wear it with pride. They've earned it.


  1. Just found this person and blog, like what I read and see, with level of intelligence and perception way above average, and I will attempt to view more of your/his/her work.
    Thanks for elevating the discourse.

    1. I'm a he. But in the interests of sane dialog (you being El Loco and me being El Sano, you can call me "you", just I promise to do for you. Any other pronouns you use for me won't be used in a conversation of which I'm part, so I don't much care.

  2. "You are provocative, evocative, and curious.
    Are "you" who you say "I" am?
    El Loco