Emory faculty blasts president for exalting "three-fifths" compromise

Members of the history and African-American studies departments say James Wagner spoke especially poorly

By David Daley

Published February 19, 2013 5:28PM (EST)


More than 30 members of the departments of history and African-American studies at Emory University have publicly rebuked the school's president for a controversial column that held up the "three-fifths" compromise as an example of "(p)ragmatic half-victories (which) kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together."

"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," the faculty members write in the Emory Wheel. "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 compromise counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of distributing income tax funds back to states and determining congressional representation. In a column in the winter issue of Emory University, first reported by Salon on Saturday, Wagner used it as an example of a "carefully negotiated compromise" and "the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution." Wagner then apologized on Sunday for "clumsiness" and added a longer historical section to his original piece.

The faculty members suggested that other compromises might have better served Wagner's purposes. They suggested the Great Compromise, in which large and small states worked out the deal that led to the two houses of Congress, a House apportioned by population and a Senate with an equal number of representatives from each state.

The letter -- which does not call for Wagner to step down from his job -- concludes:

"The very meaning of the Three-Fifths 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 we urge you to 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 Three-Fifths Compromise."

David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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Emory University James Wagner Three-fifths Compromise