Constitution Day: Feldman on Madison, Slavery and the 3/5 Compromise

To commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution, Professor Noah Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at HLS and one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, gave a lecture on Friday, Sept. 16 titled “Madison, Slavery and the 3/5 Compromise.”

The event, sponsored by Harvard Law School’s American Constitution Society, was held to mark Constitution Day, an annual, national celebration of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.

“Constitution Day … is usually described as an opportunity to venerate and honor the Constitution,” said Feldman. “The Constitution came into being in an actual specific context, and was produced, invented and imagined by real people — James Madison most prominently among them. … The Constitution is a profoundly human production, brilliant in many ways, profoundly flawed in others.”

Feldman focused his lecture on what he described as ‘the most famous example of a flaw’ in the U.S. Constitution, the Three-Fifths Compromise, which focused on how slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes. Feldman described the presentation of the compromise at the Constitutional Convention and illustrated preceding events which conceptualized the compromise.

Feldman, who currently serves as the inaugural director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Program in Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School, specializes in constitutional studies, with particular emphasis on the relationship between law and religion, constitutional design, and the history of legal theory.

The author of seven books, Feldman is completing a forthcoming biography of James Madison, the fourth President of the United States (1809–17) who is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for his pivotal role in drafting and promoting the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Feldman’s other books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” (Random House, 2013); “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices” (Twelve Publishing, 2010);  “The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State” (Princeton University Press, 2008); and “Constitutional Law, Eighteenth Edition” (Foundation Press, 2013), which he co-wrote with Kathleen Sullivan. He also writes a weekly column for Bloomberg View, which focuses on real-time analysis of today’s important legal cases.

Feldman joined the Harvard Law faculty in 2006 as a professor of law, after teaching at New York University Law School. He is a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. In 2003, he served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and subsequently advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law or interim constitution. In 2015, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) is one of the nation’s leading progressive legal organizations. Founded in 2001, ACS is comprised of law students, lawyers, scholars, judges, policymakers, activists and other concerned individuals who are working to ensure that the fundamental principles of human dignity, individual rights and liberties, genuine equality, and access to justice are in their rightful, central place in American law.