Emory’s slave history: One step forward, three-fifths of a step back?
posted by Kaimipono D. Wenger
Among the many institutions tainted by historical association with slavery are a number of universities, including Emory. This is clear from the historical record; both the University itself and many of its employees used slave labor, while the school also served as a focal point for important intellectual defenses of slavery.
In recent years, the University has taken steps to recognize and take responsibility for this history and move forward in positive ways. The school issued an official statement of regret for its involvement in slavery; launched the Transforming Community Project; and held a fantastic conference on Slavery and the University which focused on groundbreaking work from Mark Auslander, Al Brophy, and other scholars. (Full disclosure: I was a speaker at this event.)
All in all, Emory has been moving in a very positive direction over the past few years. Which makes the latest column from University President James Wagner such a head-scratcher.
In his column, Wagner goes out of his way to praise the Three-Fifths Clause:
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 is a stunning take on deeply problematic history. The Three-Fifths Clause was indeed a compromise — a compromise which contributed to the systematic abuse and disempowerment of millions of innocent people. One suspects that the people enslaved at the time might have less favorable views on the virtue of such a compromise. I hope that the column is an inadvertent misstep, and that Wagner clarifies. It is extremely troubling to see a university with historical slave ties loudly praising a political act that advanced the cause of slavery in America.
(As a side note, the press reports appear to reflect a common misunderstanding of the Three-Fifths Clause, writing for instance that it “legally represented slaves as less than a person.” This completely misrepresents the effects of the clause. As I have written in some detail in this space, the Three-Fifths Clause did _not_ reduce the substantive rights of slaves (which were governed by state law in any case). Rather, it gave extra representation to slave states. Don’t think of it as “three fifths of a person” directed at slaves; think of it as “three fifths of a bonus vote for slaveholders.”)