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Emory President Extols 3/5 Compromise

Emory-University-President-James-Wagner

Emory University president James Wagner is in hot water for the curious citation of the infamous 3/5 Compromise as an example of the virtues of compromise:

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—”to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

This is part of a short essay for Emory Magazine arguing that our national leaders and his own campus community needs to do a better job of working together to solve complex problems. Not surprisingly, the column has sparked outrage and protest.

A faculty group censured him last week for the remarks. And in a speech at Friday’s reception for the campus exhibition, “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change,” Dr. Wagner acknowledged both the nation’s continuing education in race relations and his own.

“I know that I personally have a long way to go,” he said.

His article has been seized upon by students and faculty members who say it was yet one more example of insensitivity from the Emory administration, which in September announced sweeping cuts that some say unfairly targeted programs that are popular with minorities.

About 45 students showed up to protest at the reception, silently holding signs that read “This is 5/5 outrageous” and “Shame on James” as the fight for racial equality was discussed by Dr. Wagner; Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of the civil rights movement; and leaders of the S.C.L.C.

His main point is one most of us would agree with; it is, after all, empty platitude. But that the 3/5 Compromise is the best example—indeed, it’s the only example in the article!—is odd, indeed. Had been looking for an example to justify a seemingly horrendous choice that was nonetheless better than the other available alternatives, it would have been a powerful choice. But there are better illustrations from the Philadelphia convention of working together to bridge differences in order to form a perfect union.

Wagner’s doctorate is in materials science and engineering and most of his career has been spent as a bureaucrat; he’s not a historian or philosopher. So, perhaps he can be forgiven for not having fully grappled with the issue. Then again, a career spent managing sensitive issues should have ingrained in him a bit more caution on something this inflammatory.

And it does seem that the protests are using this unfortunate choice on Wagner’s part to gain leverage on an unrelated issue: a decision to streamline poorly performing academic departments.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    My goodness. Has he never heard of the compromise that resulted in our bicameral legislature, with a Senate in which each state is represented equally but a House of Representatives that represents according to population? That was a pretty contentious issue, as I recall.

    The 3/5 compromise wasn’t a “pragmatic half-victory,” it was an abominable blight on a new nation that was founded on lofty ideals it wasn’t even close to embodying.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 3

  2. superdestroyer says:

    @Mikey:

    Would progressive have preferred that the colonies split up into multiple countries then? Maybe progressives should explain what they would have done then in the political climate that existed then. Even England had slavery until 1830 and that was without it having a true economic niche.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 7 Thumb down 19

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think this shows why we need more STEM PhD’s: more fodder for blog posts.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Add counting 3/5ths of a human being to rape as among the subjects privileged white men should avoid.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4

  5. Mikey says:

    @superdestroyer: I don’t care what England had until 1830. Nor do I care about the political climate back then. Slavery was an unalloyed evil, and it should have been ended, not perpetuated with horrible “compromises.”

    And if that meant there would be four nations in North America rather than three, then that’s what we’d have. And we can play the alternative-history game.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 3

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Honestly I believe that what happens to a lot of people who get trapped in the academic cocoon for too long is that no matter how well educated or intelligent they lose to a large extent the ability to see big pictures, to anticipate reactions and to grasp ripple effects. The House-Senate dichotomy for example was so obvious, and the slavery reference so sensitive, Wagner botched it. Just swung and missed.

    Judges often suffer from similar conditions, so to speak. Even those judges who aren’t loopy. Obviously reporters and editors, although in those cases mostly it’s a function of them being airheaded and undereducated.

    Politicians of course have their own special category of proverbial blinders and tin ears.

    In the utilitarian professional practices and in business you get challenged so often, questioned so often, shot down so often, either by people who pay your bills or by people who have the ability to fire you, at will, and when you make significant mistakes they have such stark and immediate consequences, directly hitting your own bottom line, you simply can’t help but fully clue in. Especially in the cases of teachers but even the cases of high-level academe administrators there are not those daily reality checks. Not even close. it shows.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 9

  7. aFloridian says:

    Add counting 3/5ths of a human being to rape as among the subjects privileged white men should avoid.

    I don’t agree that anyone should have to avoid these sensitive subjects. When we start treating ideas and the examination of history in that manner we lose some of our intellectual honesty. It’s the reason why I react so viscerally to the treatment in Europe of Holocaust Deniers. Obviously they are dead wrong, but if their ideas aren’t heard and challenged they are only lent more credence by those who would believe such things. In America, you could be a “slavery denier” if you want, and, in fact, there ARE many slavery apologists but I think the American Way in this regard is much healthier.

    As for the Emory president, yeah, only a hard sciences guy would have the lack of political and historical awareness to make such a gaffe. Well, maybe not, but the black-and-white worldview often held by this group doesn’t help.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  8. john personna says:

    @superdestroyer:

    I love your framing. It is “progressives” who are offended by slavery.

    Gotcha.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 0

  9. Tony W says:

    I am not sure it’s such a bad example. Today the Republicans are suggesting that the poor literally starve and die without healthcare so they can fund their boondoggle military projects and lower taxes on the wealthiest of us. Is that better or somehow more moral than 3/5 representation in Congress?

    The morality bar is often pretty low in the US – I think 3/5 representation might be less morally reprehensible than 3/5 survival.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 7

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @aFloridian:

    I don’t agree that anyone should have to avoid these sensitive subjects.

    Maybe not… but privileged white men are just plain and simply too obtuse to discuss these subjects with anything even approaching intelligence, hence my advice to them that when either of the subjects comes up, best to just zipper it.

    After all, better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

  11. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It’s actually worse than that. When I was teaching the Constitutional Convention, some student would inevitably ask how the Framers could have treated a man as 3/5 of a person. I countered that, no, slaves were treated as 0/5 of a person; they were mere chattel with all the rights of livestock. They were only 3/5 for the purposes of representation of white people in the House and for the head tax imposed on the states in the days before a federal income tax. This was an accounting deal, not a ruling on legal rights.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 33 Thumb down 1

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tony W:

    The morality bar is often pretty low in the US – I think 3/5 representation might be less morally reprehensible than 3/5 survival.

    Republicans are trying to return to those glory days of democracy with all of their vote rigging schemes. Even tho fewer people voted for Republicans than voted for Democrats (48.2% -49%) in this last election there are 233 (R) reps and only 195 (D) reps. I will let somebody else do the math, but it is pretty clear to me that (R) votes count for more than (D) votes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    This was an accounting deal, not a ruling on legal rights.

    Absolutely correct.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  14. socraticsilence says:

    @James Joyner:

    This, most people don’t seem to get that counting slaves as 0/5 would actually have been a major improvement in terms of human rights- 3/5s allowed the states driven by the slave economy (or more correctly actually possessing said slaves as some of the NE colonies reaped similar economic rewards from the trade in human flesh though they were generally separated from long term ownership) to claim the political benefits of slaves being human without being forced to actually treat them as such.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  15. PD Shaw says:

    I have little problem with what he said. Slavery was the biggest issue in adopting a Constitution. The compromise was made with a Whiggish view that slavery was on its way out anyway. Virginia was expected to adopt a plan of gradual emancipation; the slave trade was to end in 20 years and the rest of the South would eventually follow. John C. Calhoun would later opine that the Sectional Compromise was a losing bet for the South. Abraham Lincoln would extol its virtues to criticize subsequent backsliding.

    Ultimately the question becomes whether you think slavery would have ended sooner or later with the United States as one or two countries.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  16. PD Shaw says:

    Also, his consistent use of the phrase “more perfect union,” appears to echo Obama’s speech of the same name and to the same effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Rob in CT says:

    Ok, so this is the problematic bit:

    Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

    Lots of deals were made to form and preserve the Union. Some of those deals were icky. The 3/5ths, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850: rather than “pragmatic half-victories,” I’d describe them as deals that only just averted total failure. Pragmatic mostly-defeats?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Rob in CT says:

    Ultimately the question becomes whether you think slavery would have ended sooner or later with the United States as one or two countries.

    Unknowable, of course. I tend to think later in the 2 countries alternative universe (though does that universe then also have ~100 years of Jim Crow?). I also think the 2 countries scenario involves war – perhaps several – between the 2, as they expanded West. Treatment of NAs basically couldn’t have been worse than it was here on Earth Prime, so maybe there’s upside there?

    Too many variables. What happened happened. I don’t really understand lauding the 3/5ths though. Compromise in general, yes. Pointing out that compromise requires the bending of principle (often excellent principle!), yes. But I think he took praise of the 3/5 compromise itself a bit too far, is all. I didn’t read it as some awful thing, but I do disagree w/it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: Thank you for pointing out that the 3/5 compromise was about taxes and representation; and had nothing to do with the legality of slavery.

    @superdestroyer:

    Even England had slavery until 1830 and that was without it having a true economic niche.

    Think Jamaican sugar plantation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    To be charitable I think he saw the word “compromise” attached to the 3/5s resolution and decided that, because of that, it was a Good Thing. In other words, his remark was pro-compromise rather than pro-slaves being counted as 3/5s of a person for the purpose of representation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  21. JKB says:

    I’m curious since his remarks on the “accounting” compromise do not touch upon the acceptance of slave owning colonies in the union prior to the haggling over head counts, which proposal would those here like to have seen wholly accepted? The northern colony proposal that slaves don’t count at all, i.e., zero. Or the slave colony proposal that slaves count as a whole person?

    Which would be morally superior to the 3/5th compromise? The northern desire to treat slaves, in regards to the Constitutional accounting, as chattel? Or the southern desire to treat slaves as chattel but have them counted as men in the Constitutional accounting? It seems to me the stains on the Constitution would be indistinguishable since none impact the earlier acceptance of slavery among the colonies forming the Union.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  22. wr says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: “Maybe not… but privileged white men are just plain and simply too obtuse to discuss these subjects with anything even approaching intelligence, hence my advice to them that when either of the subjects comes up, best to just zipper it.”

    I disagree. There are plenty of priveleged white men who are concerned and thoughtful about the world and able to discuss issues with great intelligence. At this moment in our history, though, none of them seem to be conservatves…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  23. Azunth says:

    Examples of compromise that involve slavery are always poor examples to use. Whatever the merits of the deal in context, most people today agree slavery is wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. bandit says:

    @Tony W:

    Today the Republicans are suggesting that the poor literally starve and die without healthcare

    Sure they are – try really hard not to be so stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 10

  25. matt bernius says:

    @JKB:

    Which would be morally superior to the 3/5th compromise? The northern desire to treat slaves, in regards to the Constitutional accounting, as chattel? Or the southern desire to treat slaves as chattel but have them counted as men in the Constitutional accounting? It seems to me the stains on the Constitution would be indistinguishable since none impact the earlier acceptance of slavery among the colonies forming the Union.

    This. Neither position, nor the compromise are morally superior. Each should be considered a stain on our nation’s history.

    And thus it’s a terrible example to choose if one wants to extol the value of compromising.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  26. Tyrell says:

    I distinctly remember this argument in my history and civics classes in high school and college. These compromise were made with the goal of preserving the Union and giving both sides some time to work out various issues, one of which was slavery. If things had worked out so that some sort of agreement could have been worked out to abolish slavery, over a period of time for example, then the Civil War would not have occurred and we would not be talking Here is a man who is presenting a sensible, cogent point, yet he is attacked totally unfairly by those who want an emotionally charged atmosphere which prevents any reason, and of course the issue of race is abused. I remember our history textbooks made essentially the same points and I certainly think they were valid then and still are. The fact that a person cannot present a valid and historically supported view is a sad commentary on today’s slanted, vicious atmosphere that exists in academic circles and our culture.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @wr:

    I disagree. There are plenty of priveleged white men who are concerned and thoughtful about the world and able to discuss issues with great intelligence.

    Some issues, yes. The issues of rape or blackness? There is no chasm greater than the one that exists between a rich white man, and a poor black woman. They don’t even live in the same country. Oh sure, it may seem like the US of A….

    Hell, I can’t imagine what it is like to be a rich white male or a poor black woman.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  28. matt bernius says:

    @Tyrell:
    The problem with this line of conservative outrage/response to the situation is two fold:

    First, the issue is that people are frustrated that the 3/5th compromise was the best thing that Dr Wagner could muster to bolster his argument. In fact, there were other compromises that took place during the authoring of the Constitution that are equally noteworthy (such as the creation of a House and Senate).

    Second, it’s the fact that the 3/5th’s compromise was essentially akin to the Sequester compromise that got us to this moment — i.e. as you even note in your response, it was a compromise that kicked a tough problem down the line for future generations to take care of. Which seems to be exactly the opposite of the current “we need to deal with this problem now to prevent our grandchildren from having to resort to cannibalism” line of thought prevalent among Conservative talking heads.

    BTW – it’s ironic to note that all of the “great compromises” in US history were centered around prolonging the institution of Slavery (or later opening the way for Racial Discrimination).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  29. John D'Geek says:

    @James Joyner: Wagner’s doctorate is in materials science and engineering

    Oh. Well, that explains it. I like Cringely’s comment regarding Engineers:

    What’s at work here is the principle that companies lie, bosses lie, but engineers are generally incapable of lying. If they lied, how could the many complex parts of a computer or a software application be expected to actually work together?

    “Yeah, I know I said wire Y-21 would be 12 volts DC, but, heck, I lied.”

    Nope, it wouldn’t work.

    (From the book Accidental Empires).

    Is it a good example? Yes. Is it politically sensitive (aka “avoid the truth”, aka “yet another way to lie”)?

    No.

    Is slavery evil? yes. But it was a reality, and we shouldn’t ignore that reality.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Rob in CT says:

    @JKB:

    which proposal would those here like to have seen wholly accepted? The northern colony proposal that slaves don’t count at all, i.e., zero. Or the slave colony proposal that slaves count as a whole person?

    Which would be morally superior to the 3/5th compromise? The northern desire to treat slaves, in regards to the Constitutional accounting, as chattel? Or the southern desire to treat slaves as chattel but have them counted as men in the Constitutional accounting?

    Neither proposal counted the slaves as men (3/5 or full), and thus both are morally repugnant. Southern were given representation in accordance with their white populations + 3/5 of their slave populations. [If memory serves, there were tax implications too]. In my opinion, 0/5 would have been superior to 3/5 in that it at least would have reduced the political power of the slave states. It wouldn’t have meant much to the slaves, unless & until slavery was abolished (which might have come quicker had the slave states held less power. But then a Union that went with 0/5 would likely have not included many of the slave states, so we’re well into counterfactual fantasyland here).

    The point is that this was a poor choice for someone seeking to extol the virtues of compromise. It was a morally unpleasant (to put it mildly) compromise that kicked the can down the road for a while in the hopes that things could be resolved somehow. This, as we now know, did not work. We still got to have a blood civil war, abolition of slavery largely by force and a century of Jim Crow and bitterness over the war and reconstruction. I do think it’s fair to say that the alternative pathways may also have ended in tears as well, but that doesn’t turn the 3/5ths compromise into a good example of why compromise is good!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  31. Rob in CT says:

    Another possible example would’ve been the “Connecticut Compromise.” I can critique it, particularly as it impacts present-day US politics, but it’s a much better example of bending one’s principles to reach an agreement that works out for the betterment of the whole.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  32. @Rob in CT: I’m not sure how much of a difference it would made in Congress. I’m pretty sure the North always had a majority in the House, and the 3/5 Compromise didn’t effect the Senate where the South managed to stop anything it objected to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. Tony W says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Hell, I can’t imagine what it is like to be a rich white male or a poor black woman.

    It has never been a bad time to be a rich white male, while far from “rich” I can tell you even being a ’3 or 4 percenter’ doesn’t suck.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. PD Shaw says:

    @Rob in CT: The 3/5ths compromise was a victory for the anti-slavery movement to the extent that it incentivized freeing slaves. Each slave freed increased a state’s vote by 2/3rds. This was important in a time in which most colonies were in the process of gradual emancipation; the risk was from backsliding. The value of the incentives were gradually lost as Virginia turned away from gradual emancipation and slavery expanded into the territories. If South Carolina can keep many states dependent upon slave commerce, then it doesn’t need the extra votes of freed slaves.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tony W:

    It has never been a bad time to be a rich white male, while far from “rich” I can tell you even being a ’3 or 4 percenter’ doesn’t suck.

    You know… there for a while I (and my wife) were 7-8 percenters. And that was pretty good. Unfortunately, my hands are all kinds of f’d up. So is one of my shoulders and I worry about a knee…. And my neck…. And my back….

    In other words, I am ready for the trash heap. It is a good thing my wife loves me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  36. george says:

    @Tony W:

    It has never been a bad time to be a rich white male, while far from “rich” I can tell you even being a ’3 or 4 percenter’ doesn’t suck.

    There haven’t been a lot of bad times to a rich anything, as far as that goes. If nothing else, rich in a bad situation tends to play out better than poor. I’m not sure if it made much difference during say the bubonic plague in Europe, which killed a third of the population, but my guess is you still had a better chance being rich than poor (just a guess though).

    Did kings and queens, princes and princesses have the same death rate as commoners?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  37. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Is it just me? I find that your perpetual discussion point of “the academic cocoon” is truly ironic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  38. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    I believe the point is that progressives have gone of this weeks two minute hate against Dr Wagner to make the politically correct point that they would have been against Slavery back in 1790. Of course, what they do not say is what their alternative would have been back in 1970.l Would we be better off if North America would have broken up into a large number of countries?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  39. superdestroyer says:

    @gVOR08:

    Jamaica is not England. However, it was part of the British empire. I found the wikipedia entry on the ending of slavery interesting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. al-Ameda says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Would progressive have preferred that the colonies split up into multiple countries then? Maybe progressives should explain what they would have done then in the political climate that existed then. Even England had slavery until 1830 and that was without it having a true economic niche.

    Multiple countries? Why not?
    The biggest mistake Lincoln made was in NOT letting the South secede. We fought the Civil War, in large part, for nothing. Yes, Slavery was ended, but for about 100 years afterward it was replaced by a system of segregation, apartheid, and Jim Crow Laws. All of that death and a permanent cultural divide only to put off real legal and social justice for a century?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  41. Rob in CT says:

    All of that death and a permanent cultural divide only to put off real legal and social justice for a century?

    Would it have been any better in the alternate universe? I could easily see things being even worse. A longer period of slavery followed by just as much post-slavery apartheid, if not more. Warfare between the USA and CSA could easily have happened even after an amicable divorce in 1860. We all know about the “underground railroad” and the Fugitive Slave Law, right? Ok, split the CSA off. Slaves keep escaping. Northerners are entirely unrepentent about it… even gleeful. Southerners are furious. Northern diplomats politely (or not so politely) tell them to pound sand. Southerners threaten to refuse to sell cotton to the North, or whatever other retaliatory measures they can think of. Northern bankers remind Southern platation owners how dependent they are on Northern capital… and so on. Add competition in westward expansion to the mix and I don’t see how you don’t get a war or two.

    The outcome of the war & reconstruction is deeply unsatisfying. And we can always wonder what might have been had Boothe failed. But if we spin counterfactual outcomes, “worse” seems just as likely a result as “better.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0