Emory University President James Wagner Counting Slaves as Three-Fifths of a Person, a Pragmatic Half-Victory

Emory president James Wagner, penned an eyebrow raising column, “Three-Fifths Compromise,” in which he called the deal that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, a constitutional compromise. James Wagner was referring to the fiscal cliff issue and the importance of keeping one’s mind open to other points of view.

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. Source:  Emory University

For those who might be fuzzy on exactly what the “Three-Fifths Compromise” is all about: it was a “compromise between Southern and Northern states reached during the Philadelphia convention of 1787 in which three-fifths of the enumerated population of slaves would be counted for representation purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives. It was proposed by delegates James Wilson and Roger Sherman.”

So, in James Wagner’s eyes, demeaning and denigrating slaves as three-fifths of a person was one of the best deals in American history, an example of working towards “highest aspiration.” I wonder what former president Jimmy Carter has to say about this, since James Wagner is on the board of The Carter Center in downtown Atlanta. Um, I am guessing there were other pieces of “landmark” legislation or constitutional compromises that James Wagner could have picked instead of one that left one of the worst stains on America’s history.

This was cross-posted from The Hinterland Gazette.

graphic via shutterstock.com


  • Brainster

    Why is everybody so stupid about this issue? The bad guys (the slave states) wanted the slaves to count as whole persons, to increase their political power. The good guys (the non-slave states) didn’t want them to count at all, to limit the power of the slave states. Hence the compromise. People act as if this was “demeaning and denigrating” the slaves. Any more than slavery was?