Emory President Ignites Furor over Slavery Reference

Mark Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.theird.org) and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Follow him on Twitter: @markdtooley.


The President of Emory University has ignited controversy for citing the original constitutional agreement of 1787 that counted three-fifths of the slave population in congressional representation as a “compromise” that should inspire today’s gridlocked American politics.

Critics are assailing President James Wagner for ostensibly glorifying an arrangement that perpetuated slavery.   He wrote in the university magazine for Winter 2013:  “Both sides [north and south] found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union.”

Confronted by outrage, Wagner has apologized:  “Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”

Not everyone was mollified.  The 200 faculty of Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences voted to censure him. There was a demonstration against him.  The New York Times and The Washington Post have published articles. NPR aired a story.  The Times quoted one Emory history professor: “The three-fifths compromise is one of the greatest failed compromises in U.S. history,” she said. “Its goal was to keep the union together, but the Civil War broke out anyway.”

Wagner was pretty clumsy to cite the three-fifths accord as an admirable example for modern times.  He was needlessly inviting controversy for his benign advocacy of political compromise.  Why didn’t he instead cite the Constitutional Convention’s mollification of large and small states by creating a House of Representatives based on population and a Senate with each stated represented equally?  Or there was the deal paying off state war debts, but mollifying Virginia and Maryland, which had paid their own debts, with the location of the new capital city.

But Wager’s critics aren’t entirely fair.  Contrary to the history professor’s claim it was the one of the “greatest failed compromises,” it did successfully keep north and south together for over 70 years instead of fracturing the nation at the start.  And as Abraham Lincoln understood 70 years later, there could be no likely eradication of slavery without preserving the union.  If the southern slave states formed their own country apart from the northern free states (some of which had not yet themselves abolished slavery at the time of the Constitution), southern slavery likely would continue indefinitely.  And forestalling the Civil War by over 70 years was a sort of accomplishment. Victory for the Union cause, and for emancipation, would not have been so sure if war had occurred in earlier decades before the north gained the firm advantage in population, industry and wealth.

Atlanta-based Emory, with 14,000 students, has in recent years under President Wagner focused on its own history with slavery. “Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the college’s early history,” its board declared in 2011.  “Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the university’s decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy.”   Before the Civil War the school sometimes “rented” slaves from local owners for work on the campus.  The school is named for Methodist Bishop John Emory, himself a slave owner.   Methodism, as America’s largest church, split between north and south in 1844 over slavery, precipitated specifically by slave owning by one southern bishop.  Emory is today still at least officially affiliated with the United Methodist Church, although it’s mostly secular and replicates the culture of most liberal universities.

Likely not all disputants in the Emory controversy recall the three-fifths history very accurately. At the Constitutional Convention, northern delegates wanted zero congressional representatives for slaves, who lacked rights as citizens.  Southern delegates demanded full representation for slaves to bolster their own region’s congressional strength.  Three-fifths was the middle ground that allowed eventual agreement on the Constitution.  Of course, in the republic’s early days, most even non-enslaved Americans lacked voting rights.  Women were disenfranchised, as were many if not most non-property owning men.  In the 18th century, only a handful of nations had any semblance of democracy. Nowhere was there full franchise for everyone.  Only a small fraction of British people could vote for members of Parliament. Notorious “rotten boroughs” had their members handpicked by or purchased by nobles.   In their dispute with the American colonies, who complained of taxation without parliamentary representation, the British claimed their Parliament represented the whole British nation, including colonists, irrespective of voting rights.  In his tract against the Revolution, Methodist founder John Wesley, a prominent Church of England clergy, accurately declared that most British in the homeland had no more voting rights than did American colonists. But the original American republic, for all its sins, slavery chief among them, represented the greatest expansion of voting rights that history had ever seen.

In apologizing for his three-fifths comment, Wagner added that American democracy was founded as a “noble experiment, however flawed and imperfect.”  And he asked:  “Would the alternative have been a fractured continent, a portion of which might have continued far longer as an economy built on the enslavement of human beings?”  And he surmised:  “Inevitably, our existence as human beings is a compromised existence, never pure. Unless we recognize that with humility and mutual charity, we will always remain polarized.”

America’s founders tried to create an approximate justice amid the constraints of a fallen world, which included the evil of slavery.  Their ideas eventually, over a long bumpy ride, created a great republic with legal equality for all persons.    They, like we, were not “pure,” but sinners looking for the best available means.   Wagner tried to explain their predicament and presumably will do so with more finesse from here on.

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  • cjk

    Factual historical statements are met with hysterical, inane, vicious, destructive, ignorant, reactions. The people who exercise this unthinking stupidity are coddled, excused, and bowed to, absolutely disgusting.
    The truth is stomped down by hypocrites who then turn a pointing finger and accuse those still interested in speaking truthfully about race as cowards and racists on par with pedophiles.

  • Rocco

    Wagner should have read David Horowitz's "Black Skin Privilege" prior to writing the essay!

  • Lee Poteet

    The comment that slavery would have continued on in the South without the War Against Southern Independence is a libel Lincoln's war was about slavery but money. The South, the richest part of the country by far, was paying 85 to 90 percent of Federal revenues for which it got only about ten percent back. Since words still have meaning to honest folk, there was no "Civil War" and the South for all practical purposes became and remains a colony whose states and people have been treated as lesser since. At the end of the war its people were robbed of every thing which could be taken from them and moved North to fund the era of the Robber Barons..

    • Todd

      "Lincoln's war was (not) about slavery but money." No substantiation. Seems more like a libel against Lincoln & the original Republican party.

      I have considered that slavery should have been outlawed by the separate states instead by the Federal government. There were abolitionists in the south. They had a voice. I need to study the matter more. Certainly some land owners would have opposed them by means fair & foul. Also a whole justification for slavery grew up that perverted science & religion and thus society. Still after abortion & gay marriage, I think that it should be done state by state and not Deus ex-Machina by a judge or the Federal government..

      " was paying 85 to 90 percent of Federal revenues for which it got only about ten percent back"

      That is either true or false. There can be no argument there unless records have been lost or destroyed in my opinion.

      "At the end of the war its people were robbed of every thing which could be taken from them "
      Often happens in war both ancient & as recent as WW2 by all parties. I certainly know some plantations were divided up along the Mississippi & given to ex slaves. Some allegedly had been abandoned. That happens in war. Have not heard of confiscations. Not saying it did not happen. the only one I know of is Arlington Cemetery. And that one does not bother me in the least.

      "and moved North to fund the era of the Robber Barons."
      I think that corporations would grow & consolidation would have taken place if the southern states had not existed ( If that geographical area had been covered by sea). It is part of the nature of people & businesses.

      Funding them? This is your weakest argument. But it will have to be answered because you will repeatedly bring it up. But if it is specious, people will look askance at you & your future arguments

      Still slavery is & was evil & the longer it went on the worse the repercussions afterwards. How long would it have taken to end another way? Would this have been better?

  • 2Pak Prot

    If there had not been a compromise what would have happened?

    There would not be any United States. "Yay!" effuses the American hating liberal. Well liberals are always one for cutting of their noses to spite their faces.

    What else would have happened?

    Well the southern states would have kept right on slaving. Would slavery been abolished any sooner or later if we had gone down this road? Don't know. Neither do the liberals. Perhaps one could do some simulation like the military does, wargames. But this is to predict what people would do under a slightly different set of circumstances. Not sure that psychology is developed enough quite yet, but I think we have big enough supercomputers.

    Would Britain still have outlawed slavery in 1806 if there had been no United States? Maybe not. Especially if the British had re-invaded the South. Follow the money. It was for money that Britain forced opium on China. It was for money that Britain enforced mercantalism on India & proscribed by law the development of heavy industry. Ask the Indians & Chinese how they feel about that.

    Certainly, Britain though about invading & taking over the U.S. in 1812 or taking advantage of the situation in 1860. Certainly Britain was a democracy in the 18th & 19th centuries. but that does not mean that every faction in said democracy wants to rule democratically.

    What did happen after the compromise? Well the importation of news slaves was made illegal. They were trying to get rid of the institution. People honestly thought the institution of slavery would die out because of the economics. You can argue that. You cannot argue that there were attempts to stamp it out such the aforementioned barring of new importation of slaves.

    And yes there was a whole lot of kicking the can down the road. The kicked the can down the road from the Atlantic coast, down the Ohio river valley past the Missouri Iowa state line & into bleeding Kansas.

    And then everything blew up. Kicking a can is like playing hot potato with a live grenade. It is not smart. You can argue that the original can kickers made out. Did they? 200 years in a short amount of time. Maybe in a further 200 years the original can kickers have no patrimony of any sort.

    Still if there had been no compromise, would slavery had died you sooner or later? You don't know.