Emory University President James Wagner has infuriated many on his campus and scholars elsewhere by using the president's letter in the new issue of Emory Magazine to say that the "three-fifths compromise" of the U.S. Constitution was a model for how people who disagree can work together for "a common goal."
Following an explosion of social media criticism Saturday as word of Wagner's letter spread, he released an apology. "To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me," he wrote. (The apology currently appears on top of the original letter on Emory's website, linked to in the previous paragraph.)
The three-fifths compromise expanded the political clout of the slave states by codifying that black slaves counted for purposes of allocating seats in the House of Representatives as 60 percent of a white person (even though the slave states gave black people 0 percent of the voting or other rights of white people). To many African Americans, the three-fifths compromise is among the more blatant events in which the founders of the United States explicitly denied the humanity of black people.
On Twitter Saturday, as links to copies of the president's letter were sent from professor to professor, scholars called the statement "unbelievable" and used hashtags such as "noi'mnotkidding" and "racism." Some of the comments: "President of Emory should keep some history profs around to tell him how offensive this analogy is" and "Tune in next month, when my column will use the Lodz Ghetto as an example of 'Making the Best of It.' "
Wagner described the three-fifths compromise this way in his original letter: "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." He also cited the three-fifths compromise as one of the "pragmatic half-victories" that led to the solidifying of the United States.
He goes on to lament the current fiscal stalemate in Washington and to suggest that "the polarization of our day and the lessons of our forebears point to a truth closer to our university." And then he discusses the need for compromise at Emory (which has of late been debating the administration's decision to eliminate a number of academic programs).
"At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal -- and the reality -- of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century," Wagner wrote. "This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal -- the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society. I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals."
'Notorious' and 'Repugnant'
Much of Wagner's apology focused on what he did not say in the original letter. "Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay," he wrote in the apology, in which he referred to the three-fifths compromise as "notorious" and "repugnant" -- very different language than that used in the original.
At the same time, he wrote that his original essay did not suggest that the ends justified the means when he wrote about the compromise.
"In retrospect we can fairly ask ourselves, would we have voted for the Constitution -- for a new nation, for 'a more perfect union' -- if it meant including the three-fifths compromise? Or would we have voted no -- that is, voted not to undertake what I hope we see as a noble experiment, however flawed and imperfect it has been. Would the alternative have been a fractured continent, a portion of which might have continued far longer as an economy built on the enslavement of human beings? We don’t know; nor could our founders know."
Wagner added: "The ends do not in themselves justify any means necessary to achieve them. My essay did not suggest that. But without a struggle to find a way through to our higher purpose, we may be left with far more damaging circumstances than what our light calls us toward. Inevitably, our existence as human beings is a compromised existence, never pure. Unless we recognize that with humility and mutual charity, we will always remain polarized."
While Wagner is currently under fire for failing to realize the meaning of the three-fifths compromise, Emory under his leadership has placed an emphasis on studying and talking about the institution's ties to slavery in the antebellum era. In 2011, Emory's board adopted a statement said: "Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the college's early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the university's decades of delay in acknowledging slavery's harmful legacy.
Also in 2011, Emory organized a conference on "Slavery and the University" that examined the way many colleges and universities have ignored or confronted their links to slavery. At Emory, the university acknowledged that every antebellum president of the university (which was founded in 1836), and most of the faculty members, owned slaves, and that the university regularly used slave labor for building and other projects.
Will the Apology Be Accepted?
It is unclear whether Sunday's apology and clarification by Wagner will quell the criticism. Through Sunday morning, expressions of anger at the original letter continued to spread online.
Mark A. Sanders, chair of African American studies at Emory, said before the apology was issued that many faculty members there were concerned about Wagner's letter in the alumni magazine and that they were drafting a formal response.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory, blogged about Wagner Saturday, and questioned the way he portrayed compromise as inherently virtuous, and saying that he was implying that the many faculty critics of his budget-cutting plans are failing to meet an obligation to meet him halfway.
"[W]hile Wagner’s rhetorical appeal to slavery as a shining example of ideological compromise is ill-advised, logically fallible, and culturally clueless it is useful for understanding how elites view themselves and the rest of us. Enslaved bodies are not at stake and symbolic matter cannot and should not be equated to horrors of slavery. But there is a real debate going on, materially and ideologically, and those with the authority to have the debate are choosing not to engage it because doing so means questioning their role in perpetuating the inequalities of a system from which they benefit," she wrote. "This is how you get to a place where you can offer up as an example of political expediency and virtue a debate among slaveholding political elites about the value of a black human life. You remove people and humanity from the equation, you identify with the victors of the spoils, and you narrow the debate to those who would only debate with you how the pie should be divided and never where the pie came from."
Much of the online commentary expressed shock that someone could be a president of a prominent university and not realize just how offensive many people would view praise for the three-fifths compromise. One comment on Twitter: "This Emory thing reminds me: the startling mediocrity of our elite class makes Brezhnev look like the Philosopher King."
Aaron Bady, a Ph.D. student in African literature at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote on his blog that the uproar was a reflection of the modern university presidency. "But why would we expect him not to be obtuse, out of touch, and stupid?" Bady wrote.
"I expected the president of Emory University to be something other than offensively stupid, and I guess I still do: no one who can write that essay should be the president of a university. But what I’m really saying, when I say that, is that I expect a university to be a place where authority is derived from knowledge and engagement, where intellectual rigor is part of the air one breathes, the atmosphere of the place, in the water. And maybe that expectation shows that I’m the one who’s out of touch. The job of a university president, today, is not to be an intellectual leader but to be a manager and a fundraiser, the CEO of a corporation which just happens to be a university. And because the job is to ensure the continuity of the institution, no matter what, it makes a certain kind of sense that the 3/5ths compromise would appeal to him as an idea."
As of Sunday evening, there is more online commentary about the original statement than about the explanation Wagner added Sunday. But some people are starting to react to Sunday's statement, and they are not considering the matter resolved. One person on Twitter called Sunday's statement "not exactly what I'd call an apology."
Roopika Risam, a Ph.D. student in English at Emory, blogged Sunday that Wagner's statement Sunday was trying to call the whole situation a "gaffe," which she found problematic. "To invoke a narrative of gaffe by way of 'clumsiness' is to claim ultimate deniability and to abdicate responsibility for one’s words. Gaffes provide exemptions from accountability, foisting the burden of interpretation onto the audience ('those hurt or confused'), asking the audience to divine the intentions behind words rather than accept what was actually written," she wrote.
Another President's Take on Three-Fifths Compromise
It may not be surprising that Wagner would extol the virtues of compromise. Many college and university presidents talk about the challenges they face leading their institutions at a time that many constituencies disagree on the direction in which colleges should go. But Wagner might have picked a better historical example of compromise than the one he used had he consulted a new book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (Princeton University Press), by Amy Gutmann, a political philosopher who is president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Thompson, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University.
As the book's subtitle suggests, the authors are decidedly in favor of more political compromise. But Gutmann and Thompson don't argue that all compromise is good. In a section in the book on the Constitutional Convention, Gutmann and Thompson write that "Grand compromises such as those reached at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 are often cited as exemplars of moral courage, but just as often as testaments to moral cowardice."
The authors note that there were two primary compromises at the time, the three-fifths compromise and the pact that created the Senate, where less populous states and blocs of states had more power than they would otherwise. They note that the compromise that created the Senate -- largely seen as less morally questionable than the three-fifths compromise -- caused decades of hardship and discrimination for African Americans, as Southern senators used their power to preserve slavery before the Civil War and to preserve Jim Crow after Reconstruction.
And in discussing the three-fifths compromise, they note that some historians question whether the Northern states really needed to give up as much as they did to slave states. And Gutmann and Thompson write of the three-fifths compromise as something other than a model for today.
"The compromise offended principles of equality, fairness and respect for human dignity.... Many people at the time thought so too," they write.