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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