Emory University President Gets Flak for Praising ‘Three-Fifths’ Compromise

Jack Bedrosian

In a letter published Monday in the Emory University newspaper, the Emory Wheel, 31 faculty members criticized school president James Wagner for a column in the winter issue of the alumni magazine, in which Wagner praised the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise. Wagner touted the 1787 agreement  to "count" slave as three-fifths of a person as a shining example of our forefather's ability to "temper ideology" and "continue working towards the highest aspiration." He wrote: 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.Not surprisingly, Wagner's description of the Three-Fifths Compromise as a "pragmatic half-victory" outraged many in his home state of Georgia and around the country, leading to an apology from the president that could be described as a pragmatic and half-hearted:  We see these truths in hindsight. In retrospect we can fairly ask ourselves, would we have voted for the Constitution—for a new nation, for “a more perfect union”—if it meant including the three fifths compromise? Or would we have voted no—that is, voted not to undertake what I hope we see as a noble experiment, however flawed and imperfect it has been? 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? We don’t know; nor could our founders know.The faculty letter called Wagner's column an "insult," albeit an "unintended" one, while providing a more accurate contextualization of the compromise and its legacy: The very meaning of the Three-Fifths Compromise still resonates negatively today, and nowhere more strongly than in the African American community. Many African Americans within and outside of the academy see only the most glaring aspect of the compromise — that they were valued only a fraction as much as a white American — no matter for what purpose or the context; and many others abhor the denigration inherent in that failed compromise. Compromise is necessary to the public good, but we urge you to be careful about the compromises you hold up for emulation. Some compromises don’t hold; others shouldn’t hold. Surely if the goal is to make Emory, and our nation, a “more perfect union” that is inclusive instead of exclusive, and if compromise is a possible model, there are more admirable choices than the Three-Fifths Compromise.Situated in Atlanta, which is 54 percent African-American, Emory had a 9 percent African-American class of 2013.

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