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.

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