Emory President’s Commentary on the Three-Fifths Compromise Causes Uproar on Campus

emory-logoJames W. Wagner, president of Emory University in Atlanta, has come under fire for commentary published in the winter issue of Emory Magazine. The article focused on the need for political compromise in order to serve the public good.

But President Wagner was criticized for using the “Three-Fifths Compromise” that was agreed to by framers of the U.S. Constitution as an example of politicians finding neutral ground “to form a more perfect union.”

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for establishing population counts for the apportionment of congressional representatives. The northern states didn’t want slaves to count at all and the southern states wanted slaves to be counted fully. So the slaveholding states got three fifths of what they wanted, a decided edge in the compromise. And furthermore, the compromise enabled the southern states to dominate American politics and perpetuate slavery for more than 70 years.

presidentIn writing about the compromise, President Wagner stated, “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.”

But many in the Emory community took offense. In a letter to President Wagner, a large group of faculty members wrote, “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 pointed out the denigration of Black slaves as three-fifths of a person was, and remains, a major insult to African Americans. And they called President Wagner’s commentary “an insult to the descendents of those enslaved people who are today a vital part of the Emory University community and our nation.”

After criticisms arose, President Wagner issued a statement which read in part, “Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”

Members of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences reportedly voted to censure President Wagner but a motion of no confidence was tabled.

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