Bad History at Emory University

I don’t expect much from University presidents. The president of my own undergrad university once penned an editorial praising the virtues of localism. A few years later, when a big donor gave money to start an international program, the same president could be found writing about the joys of a global perspective. I suppose that presidents just have to be salesmen for their universities and say whatever is necessary to keep the trustees and donors happy.

So it’s not surprising to see James Wagner, president of Emory University, wrote a column in favor of compromise. Compromise has become a trendy issue among centrists and businessmen who are faced with America’s polarized political landscape. It’s hard to see how you could go wrong with this topic.

Wagner titled the piece As American as … Compromise, signaling that he was going to invoke America’s long history of political compromise. There are any number of examples that you could use, the most obvious being the power sharing between the two houses of the federal legislature. As an example it falls into the category of “bleeding obvious,” since historians sometimes refer to the agreement that created it as the “Grand Compromise.”

So what example does Wagner reach for?

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. […] 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.


The idea of a smiling overpaid white guy speaking approvingly of the three-fifths clause is just … words fail me. It created a firestorm, and the faculty has now censured the president:

Emory University’s faculty members this week voted at their monthly meeting to censure President James Wagner over a controversial column he wrote that held up the Three-Fifths Compromise as an example of two sides collaborating for the greater good. The piece, which appeared in the winter edition of Emory Magazine, has sparked national headlines and criticism toward Wagner, to say the least.

A faculty member clarified in The Emory Wheel, the student-run newspaper, that a censure is “an expression that you deplore what he said. [It’s] a little stronger than a reprimand, but not as strong as a vote of no confidence.”

Wagner is issuing half-pologies, agreeing the the example was offensive but maintaining that it is still a good example. Setting aside the repugnant sight of a white man in power shrugging off the damage done to a demographic that he does not represent, he’s still flat wrong. His example is bad history.

The three-fifths clause granted the southern states much greater political power than they deserved. Until the end of the slave trade, the states could literally buy votes. Afterwards, they still had large populations of slaves that ensure they had more votes than comparable northern states. Thus, while Maine and Virginia had roughly equal populations of free citizens, Virginia had twice the electoral votes.

The results of this inequality are easy to see: the majority of presidents and supreme court justices were either slaveholders or sympathetic to slaveholders, and the house of representatives was skewed towards southern states. This created a system that ensured that slavery and that southern political dominance would continue. This fed the northern paranoia of a slave power conspiracy, increasing tensions between regions and stirring up fears on both sides.

If a good compromise was one that improved the stability of the country so that it could advance towards a “more perfect union,” then the three-fifths compromise failed on every measure. It created an unstable union that could not advance until it had nearly destroyed itself in a civil war. The only way that this works as an example would be if you could prove that the Constitutional Convention would have been scuttled without it and that the Articles of Confederation would have destroyed the country.

This really should have been an easy column to knock off. The fact that Wagner managed to botch the job this badly indicates that he’s historically illiterate and generally out of touch. I don’t know whether that’s a problem in a University president or not.

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