Emory president’s big faux pas on slavery

Photo Credit: Emory University

Emory University President James Wagner has come under increasing fire for lauding the “three-fifths compromise” in the U.S. Constitution. This measure allowed slave states increased power in the federal government by counting slaves in federal censuses and assigning representation in Congress based on three-fifths of their numbers. In other words, for every 100,000 slaves within its borders, Georgia was credited with having 60,000 citizens. Meanwhile, the slaves themselves had no rights as citizens, being treated as chattel property. The South wanted all the slaves counted; Northern interests wanted none of them coutned. So Southerners pretty much got their way.

Nowadays, the three-fifths compromise is not considered an example of  good governance.  Instead it is widely seen as dishonest pandering to a great evil.

Now, here’s what Wagner originally wrote in Emory Magazine:

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.

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.

This caused a firestorm of criticism. Since then, Wagner has disavowed slavery (snark) and apologized for the “clumsiness and insensitivity” of his remarks.

The latest: Emory’s Arts and Sciences faculty censured Wagner—but they stopped short of issuing a vote of no confidence.



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