Compromised (Cont’d)

Published:February 24, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

John Emory (New York Public Library)

Last week we mentioned on these pages an unfortunate column written by the president of Emory University, who held up the three-fifths compromise at the Constitutional Convention as the sort of pragmatic politicking to which we ought to aspire today. The idea of the three-fifths compromise was to count enslaved men, women, and children as three-fifths of a person when divvying up legislative districts. Compared to the North, the South had many fewer white people. Without the slaves, there would have been fewer congressional districts, and therefore fewer representatives in Congress. Which would have meant that southern interests—i.e., slavery—might have suffered. Slaves were required to be part of the “constituency” necessary to maintain slavery.

It’s an irony to be sure, but also, according to President John W. Wagner, an acceptable “price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—’to form a more perfect union.'” More than that, the three-fifths compromise “kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.”

President Wagner quickly apologized, but the New York Times has now written about the incident, placing it in the context of some other issues on the Atlanta school’s campus. A professor made an interesting point:

Leslie Harris, a history professor and the director of a series of campus events that for five years examined issues of race at Emory, said she was more troubled by the intellectual holes in Dr. Wagner’s argument.

In his column, Dr. Wagner used the Congressional fight over the national debt to muse on the importance of compromise, which he called a tool for noble achievement. “The constitutional compromise about slavery, for instance, facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to — a new nation,” he wrote.

That is a deep misunderstanding of history, Dr. Harris said.

“The three-fifths compromise is one of the greatest failed compromises in U.S. history,” she said. “Its goal was to keep the union together, but the Civil War broke out anyway.”

True enough. But how long does one need to stave off civil war before such a compromise—founded, as it was, on evil and injustice—can be seen as something other than a total failure? I mean, seventy-four years ain’t bad.

By the way, the university’s namesake, the Methodist bishop John Emory (1789–1835), is also the namesake of Emory and Henry College in Washington County—the oldest college in southwest Virginia and the alma mater (well, almost the alma mater, if he hadn’t have transferred) of J. E. B. Stuart.

IMAGE: John Emory (New York Public Library)