Published:February 17, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

"The Old Plantation," attributed to John Rose, ca. 1785–1790 (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Everybody needs a break, and I’ve been taking a much-needed one while we at Encyclopedia Virginia work to meet a grant deadline. But it’s hard to ignore this from the president of Emory University.

In his regular president’s letter for the university’s alumni magazine, James Wagner begins with the usual bromides about political polarization and how we all need to compromise more. (Fun fact: the dictionary definition of bromide actually includes this very example: “His speech had nothing more to offer than the usual bromides about how everyone needs to work together.”) What’s interesting is Wagner’s example of a great compromise in American history:

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 [to the constitutional convention of 1787] 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.

At first I thought that maybe I hadn’t read that correctly. Was the president of Emory University really saying that counting African Americans as three-fifths of a human being in order to artificially empower those who enslaved them an example of “ultimate aims” and “higher aspirations”? Apparently, yes.

As it happens, the next issue of the University of Virginia’s alumni magazine will feature a cover story I wrote about the history and legacy of slavery at the university. A number of people I interviewed mentioned the great work that Emory University has done in acknowledging its own legacy of slavery. Two years ago, Emory even hosted a conference on Slavery and the University and a number of U.Va. people, aware that we’re playing catch-up here in Charlottesville, attended.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that James Wagner, in praising the three-fifths compromise, seems to forget about all the enslaved men, women, and children who were its victims. What drew white male landholders “more closely together” also destroyed families, ruined lives, and, more than half a century later, nearly ended altogether our “more perfect union.”

Are all compromises worth the price? If Wagner had wanted to argue “no,” he couldn’t have done a better job.

UPDATE: The president apologized today.

IMAGE: “The Old Plantation,” attributed to John Rose, ca. 1785–1790 (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)