The Three-Fifths Compromise—a shining example?

James Wagner, President of Emory University, made a startling claim in his President’s Letter in this month’s edition of Emory Magazine: that the Three-Fifths Compromise is a model of putting aside petty differences to work for the common good.

As you recall, the 3/5 compromise made at the 1787 Constitutional Convention counted an enslaved person in the southern states as 60% of a person. The compromise came about when southern delegates to the convention wanted their enslaved population counted in the general population so that their states could have more representatives in the House. Northern delegates said this was ridiculous: enslaved black people could not vote, so how could they be counted amongst the population sending representatives to the House? Enslaved people had no rights, so how could someone serve in the House claiming to represent their wishes and rights as citizens? The debate was one during which southern delegates threatened to pull out of the convention and the Union if they were thwarted, and the result was a compromise: each enslaved person would be counted as 3/5 of a person, allowing the south to benefit from a large portion of its enslaved population but not the entire population.

President Wagner described the 3/5 this way in his letter: “”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.”

Wagner was using the compromise as part of his discussion about the tension between those at the university who want to push ever higher in their service to students and the ideal of the liberal arts university and those who point out the dwindling funds available to do so, and want to reign in or cut some programs. If only these two sides could put the common good of Emory ahead of their own desires and work for the common good, said Wagner, like the delegates who came up with the 3/5 by putting aside “ideology”—ideology being, in this case, having an opinion about enslaving people.

After the uproar over his letter, Wagner issued an “apology” in which he said slavery was repugnant and that the ends don’t justify the means, but, as observers have pointed out, his original letter did very much suggest that the ends do justify the means, and that he never expressed any horror or regret over the 3/5 compromise and what it meant for enslaved people in the United States in his original letter.

It’s embarrassing for the president of a university to be so historically uninformed; it’s particularly surprising at Emory, which has been very upfront about admitting its ties to slavery in the antebellum period, has faced up to its involvement in and benefit from slavery, and even hosted a conference in 2011 on “Slavery and the University”. Seeing the 3/5 only in terms of an example of willingness to compromise and reach across the aisle in Washington is symptomatic of what happens when people know a little history—just enough to draw exactly the wrong conclusions from our past.

“I have not yet begun to fight!” John Paul Jones captures the Serapis

This thrilling quote is another most Americans know, and say, but don’t know the origins of. Here is the short but epic story of the defiant line and the man who uttered it, John Paul Jones.

Jones (born John Paul) was a Scot who was apprenticed to a ship’s captain and became a sailor. His elder brother William emigrated to America while John served on a few British ships, including slave ships. He was disgusted by the cruelty of slavery, and stopped serving on those ships, working on merchant vessels and rising to the rank of captain.

While slavery may have revolted John, he seems to have had no second thoughts about meting out violent punishment to his own sailors if he felt they deserved it. He brutally whipped one sailor, who died about a month later, and killed another with a sword. John claimed it was self-defense, but he did not wait to see if a court back home in Britain would agree, and fled to America.

He went to Fredricksburg, Virginia, where his brother William had lived and recently died. He decided to stay, and it was at this time that John Paul added Jones to his name, for reasons that are unclear but may have had to do with disguising his identity. When the Revolutionary War began shortly after, Jones traveled to Philadelphia to offer his services to the fledgling U.S. Navy. He led several raids south to the Bahamas, to raid British military supplies, and north to Canada, where he was to try to liberate U.S. prisoners of war. He failed to do this, but did capture the British ship Mellish, which was carrying supplies for British General Burgoyne (whose surrender at Saratoga in 1777 was so critical to the U.S. war effort).

While he was successful, Jones clashed with American authorities in Boston, who sent him to France to do whatever might be done there to help the war effort. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were in Paris at the time persuading France to ally with the United States and enter the war on the American side, and Jones became friendly with Franklin, When France did enter the war, Jones sailed his ship, Ranger, into British waters to see what damage he could do. He fired on ships at the port of Whitehaven, then crossed to Scotland to try to take the Earl of Selkirk hostage at his estate on St. Mary’s Isle. The Earl was not at home, and after restraining his men from looting and burning the great house, Jones slipped away. Jones and his crew then captured the Drake and brought it to port in Brest.

The capture of the Drake was an important symbolic victory for the U.S., and as a reward he was given command of the Bonhomme Richard, a French ship given to the U.S. for the war effort. It was on this ship, on September 23, 1779, that Jones encountered the Serapis, a new British frigate on her maiden voyage, acting as part of a convoy protecting British shipping from piracy. The Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, on sighting a French ship flying the American flag, turned to protect their convoy. The Serapis was closest, and Jones launched his attack.

The ships began firing on each other, but knowing that the British ship had more and larger cannon than his own, Jones made the bold decision to move closer to the Serapis and try to lash the two ships together, so that the Serapis could not fire its cannon without damaging itself. As his men struggled to maneuver the Bonhomme Richard, another ship sailing with Jones, the Alliance, tried to fire on the Serapis but hit the Bonhomme Richard, which began to sink. At this point, Jones was asked if he would surrender by a British sailor on the Serapis, close enough now to the Bonhomme Richard for the question to be shouted across, and it was then that Jones uttered his famous retort “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Jones finally succeeded in lashing the two ships together, and his men could pick off British sailors with their guns. The British attempted to board the Bonhomme Richard, and although they were turned back, the American flag was shot away. A British sailor on the Serapis called over to ask if the American crew had deliberately lowered their flag in surrender, an act called striking the flag. Jones called out another salty response that is not as famous as his first: “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!” Finally, a grenade thrown onto the Serapis exploded a cache of gunpowder on the lower deck, and at last the British captain surrendered. Jones and his men left their sinking ship to board the Serapis and sail it to Texel, a port in Holland. The Bonhomme Richard could not be saved, though its crew tried to repair it enough to get it to port, and they were forced to watch it sink.

For his bravery, Jones was made a Chevalier by France, and in 1787 the Continental Congress struck a gold medal in his honor. Like most American naval officers, he was discharged after the war and left with nothing to do but return to private life, which he did not want to do. He served in the Russian navy of Catherine the Great and died in Paris in 1792. He remains were returned to the U.S. in 1905.

Jones is a mix of the valiant and the troubling. On the up side, he was brave and he rejected slavery, and his victories helped the American cause in the war. On the down side, he could be savagely violent, and if war had not come along one wonders what attacks he might have perpetrated against his crew on an American merchant ship. Perhaps he is best remembered today for his service to the United States at a time when it desperately needed bold action.

State of the Union trumped by state of Vatican?

One just heard a discussion on the radio of the decision of the current pope to step down in which the host of the morning program—alright, it’s NPR’s Morning Edition—asked if this news upstages President Obama’s pending State of the Union Address, due to be delivered tomorrow. The veteran political affairs reporter confidently said oh yes, this [the pope stepping down] is much more important than the State of the Union.

One could see how, perhaps, the news from the Vatican could steal the spotlight for this morning of Monday, February 11. But it’s harder to see how it could still be uppermost in the minds of the American people tomorrow evening, February 12, when their president outlines his domestic and foreign policy plans for 2013 and likely his second term. But why don’t you tell us?