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.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Emory Wheel
    That’s a clever name.

  • machintelligence

    You must admit he found a compromise, it just was’t a good one.

    • Michael

      I was just going to say that.

      The Three-Fifths Compromise certainly is a compromise. It’s just a shitty compromise, that does the opposite of what Wagner intended (which presumably was to show the benefits of compromise). But he could have included it as a counterexample or something.

  • Alexis

    And just how many of those slaves got to go the pools and cast their three fifths of a vote?

    • JK

      Their “owners” where the ones getting to vote for them, not the slaves themselves as far as I understand.

  • Alexis

    Yeah, I don’t know how to spell polls.

  • kessy_athena

    I think that the three fifths compromise was almost certainly the worst possible example the person could have used, but not because he’s wrong about it, but just because it completely derails the conversation by bringing in the specter of slavery.

    In the context of the 1780′s, the three fifths compromise was not a politically bad compromise. The conventional wisdom at the time was that slavery was gradually becoming less economically advantageous, and that the institution would fade away in due course of time. Given the situation at the time, this was an entirely reasonable opinion – it wasn’t until the invention of the cotton gin and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in textile manufacture that the economics changed drastically. Everyone at the time knew that slavery was wrong, and everyone also knew that trying to abolish slavery immediately would cause massive disruption and conflict in society. As Jefferson said of slavery at the time of the Compromise of 1820, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” This is why the founders envisioned a process of gradual abolition that would happen naturally over time, and abolition in the North was done gradually.

    In the very early days of the Republic, the political and economic center of gravity of the Colonies was pretty much in the South, particularly Virginia. It’s really not surprising that a lot of our early national leaders came from there – this really had nothing to do with slavery or the three fifths compromise. And had the North refused to make some sort of compromise at the Constitutional Conventional to accommodate slave interests, it’s quite likely the South wouldn’t have agreed to ratify the Constitution at all. It’s entirely conceivable that the individual Colonies would have gone their own ways, or possibly split into regional coalitions. In any event, there may well not have been a United States at all.

    From our perspective two centuries later, it’s easy to look back and say that slavery was evil and the Founders should have stood up and fought it in the beginning. It’s easy to say in retrospect that the Three Fifths Compromise was a mistake, and the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850, and all the long line of efforts trying to avert a civil war and the destruction of the Union were all mistakes. But in 1787, the Founders had no way of knowing that the course of events would inexorably drive the nation into a conflict that would cause an incredibly destructive war despite the best efforts of generations of leaders to prevent it.

    And one last thing to contemplate – considering that the locus of power was in the South in 1787, had the North refused to compromise and forced the issue then, how likely would it be that those opposed to slavery would have won? And what would the course of events have been had the issue been definitively decided in favor of slavery in 1787?

    • Lurker111

      Well-reasoned post. 2 Internets for you!

    • Avi

      I was about to speak out about the virtues of that compromise in the context of its time, but you took the words right out of my mouth. If that President guy had said what you said, he’d be might be far better off than he currently is. But I suspect not – politics is a mind killer. If you mention any political subject in academia, the politics takes over and facts and reason disappear.