The President of Emory Praises 3/5ths Compromise (Context & Responses)

In the Winter 2013 issue of Emory Magazine, Emory University President James Wagner suggested the ‘3/5ths compromise’ was “a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration,” move beyond “polarization,” and “facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.”

Excerpt from original column:

“…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…”

Excerpt from ‘response to readers:’

“…The point was not that this particular compromise was a good thing in itself. It was a repugnant compromise. Of course it is not good to count one human being as three fifths of another or, more egregiously, as not human at all, but property. Rather, the first point of the essay was that the Constitution had to be a deeply compromised document in order to be adopted at all. If something is compromised it is inherently weak, unstable. In the Constitution’s case, that weakness resulted in ongoing struggles over slavery and, eventually, civil war. In the long run, critical amendments have helped resolve some of the document’s weaknesses and instabilities. We are still working at it….”

Read both here.

To review, the 3/5ths compromise was:

“…the outgrowth of a debate that had taken place within the Continental Congress in 1783. The Articles of Confederation had apportioned taxes not according to population but according to land values. The states consistently undervalued their land in order to reduce their tax burden. To rectify this situation, a special committee recommended apportioning taxes by population. The Continental Congress debated the ratio of slaves to free persons at great length. Northerners favored a 4-to-3 ratio, while southerners favored a 2-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio. Finally, James Madison suggested a compromise: a 5-to-3 ratio. All but two states–New Hampshire and Rhode Island–approved this recommendation. But because the Articles of Confederation required unanimous agreement, the proposal was defeated. When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, it adopted Madison’s earlier suggestion….

….The Three-Fifths Compromise greatly augmented southern political power. In the Continental Congress, where each state had an equal vote, there were only five states in which slavery was a major institution. Thus the southern states had about 38 percent of the seats in the Continental Congress. Because of the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise, the southern states had nearly 45 percent of the seats in the first U.S. Congress, which took office in 1790….” (via Digital History)

The original wording in Article I, Section II of the Constitution is as follows (via Digital History):

“Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons. The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct. The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one representative…. [In 1929, Congress fixed the total number of Representatives at 435; currently, there is one Representative for about every 519,000 persons].” (emphasis mine)

Responses to Wagner’s statement include a response from Emory University Departments of History and African-American Studies faculty:

“Dear President Wagner:

The undersigned faculty from the Departments of History and African American Studies at Emory University would like to respond to your article, “As American as . . . Compromise,” which appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Emory Magazine. While we endorse your plea for civil
debate, free exchange, and compromise in public affairs, we regret that you chose to illustrate your argument with the infamous three-fifths
clause from the Constitution, wherein fifty-five white men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 concluded that in the “more perfect union”
they hoped to create a slave would count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation and taxation. This is the first time that any of us has seen anyone point to the three-fifths clause as an example of what good, right-thinking individuals can accomplish when they avoid ideological fixity. It is also, though we are sure
unintended, an insult to the descendants of those enslaved people who are today a vital part of the Emory University community and our nation.

The Constitution is filled with compromises, the most famous of which is the Great Compromise between the Virginia and the New Jersey plans for representation. For two weeks, after nailing
the windows shut so that they could speak freely without fear that their words would come back to haunt them, the delegates from the large states
and the small states debated their competing views. The result, of course, was that one house in the two-house legislature would be apportioned by population and the other apportioned equally. We believe that the Great Compromise would better serve your argument and avoid the racial denigration inherent in the Compromise you chose.

Although the Founders were careful never to use the words “slave” or “slavery,” the Constitution recognized, guaranteed, and thereby perpetuated the institution of slavery. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, there were 700,000 enslaved people in the United States; on the eve of the Civil War, there were 4,000,000. Abraham Lincoln recognized that the long string of compromises between South and North was over. In his first inaugural, he identified the issue dividing the nation: “One section of our country believes slavery is right . . . while the other believes it is wrong . . . . ”

When white Americans fully faced the moral issue of slavery, it cost the nation between 620,000 and 750,000 lives. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment finally erased slavery and the Constitutional provision that a black American was three-fifths of a white American.

The very meaning of the 3/5 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 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 3/5 Compromise.


Read more at Inside Higher Ed and here.

Inside Higher Ed notes Emory has been in the process of uncovering histories of slavery at its own institution for some time:

“…While Wagner is currently under fire for failing to realize the meaning of the three-fifths compromise, Emory under his leadership has placed an emphasis on studying and talking about the institution’s ties to slavery in the antebellum era. In 2011, Emory’s board adopted a statement said: “Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the college’s early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the university’s decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy.

Also in 2011, Emory organized a conference on “Slavery and the University” that examined the way many colleges and universities have ignored or confronted their links to slavery. At Emory, the university acknowledged that every antebellum president of the university (which was founded in 1836), and most of the faculty members, owned slaves, and that the university regularly used slave labor for building and other projects…”

The “Slavery and the University Conference” is available on iTunes U for download. Click here.

Aaron Bady, writing at The New Inquiry notes:

“…There is, however, no better example of the mentality that prioritizes institutional continuity over intellectual principles than the 3/5ths compromise. The apparent arbitrary nature of the number is what makes it stick in our minds as a historical scandal, in some ways more than it should; after all, at a time when the vast majority of American adults could not vote—when the franchise rested almost exclusively with white male property-owners—the scandal was not that slaves “only” counted as 3/5ths of a person, it was that they were slaves in the first place. But what the number’s arbitrariness demonstrates is how both sides were simply compromising in order to compromise, prioritizing the continuance of the Union over everything else. “3/5ths” didn’t mean anything, and no one pretended it did. The only important thing was that the power elite came to a consensus, and 3/5ths was where the horse-trading stopped. If that consensus required that millions of dark skinned people be enslaved and brutalized, well, that was a small price to pay for the glorious union. Continuity is what matters, after all…”

Responses continue. Natalia Cecire discusses the issue in a post on race, privilege, and innocence, and Tressie Cottom speaks directly to cuts and “compromises” being made at the university:

“That is to ask, what is this debate Wagner characterizes with such incendiary historical references a debate about really? There are the tried and true positions on who is being oppressed in academe. Education disruptors argue that recalcitrant, inefficient university models are holding hostage innovation, progress, and economic growth. Others would argue that low wage contingent labor – adjuncts and contract teaching labor – are fueling the lower classes in the academic prestige hierarchy. It’s been said more than once that adjuncts are often working for “slave wages.” Students are profit centers with their lucrative tuition payments and keep the university machine humming along.”

Wagner’s piece has already spawned an “At Emory: We Are Sorry” Tumblr. Contributions like the following circulate:

From the President : Emory Magazine

More to come.

(H/T for sharing news: Gawker; Roopika Risam on Twitter and here; Brittney Cooper on Facebook, Racialicious)

Featured Image Credit: John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, 1817 / Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C., via Learning NC: “John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, commissioned in 1817, depicts the presentation of the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in 1776. The “Committee of Five” presenting the Declaration in the center of the painting consists of Thomas Jefferson (the document’s primary author), Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The five stand before John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. 47 of the 56 signers of the Declaration appear in the painting, along with five men who did not sign. Trumbull sketched the men and the room from life. A facsimile of this painting appears on the back of the $2 bill.”

(Cross-posted from Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog)

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