Political compromise that devalues human rights is not a victory for anyone. That’s the lesson Emory University President James Wagner should have learned after stating that the three-fifths-of-a-person slavery compromise in the U.S. Constitution was a model of how different factions can work toward a “common goal.” Wagner apologized on Monday while still defending his original statement, then exacerbated his original offense by closing the first paragraph of his apology with: “To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”
Wagner made his initial comments in the President’s Letter in the latest issue of Emory Magazine. (Note that the page has been edited to include the apology at the top in italics; the original letter is below.) Wagner stated that the Constitutional compromise, in which each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for determining taxes and representation apportioned to states, was “a good thing in itself.” Wagner wrote: “The two sides [North and South] 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.”
What’s missing from Wagner’s original comment and his apology is the recognition that either counting enslaved people or counting three-fifths of them was a horrible injustice as those counted would only count toward apportioning more representatives for the slave holders! This was NOT a “Constitutional compromise about slavery,” as Wagner describes it. This was NOT a lessening of the practice of slavery at all. This was a compromise on the power of Southern plantation owners versus Northerners—and the Southerners clearly won. (The point was made at the time: It made no sense to count enslaved people at all as they had no legal standing as human beings.) Wagner discounts this moral abdication of the Northern states as “working towards the highest aspiration they both shared”; that’s an amazing lapse of judgment and terribly offensive.
In praising the “compromise,” Wagner was referencing the current fiscal debate and the GOP threat of sequestration, dramatic automatic budget cuts that will virtually cripple the federal government. But his likening of successful compromise to this horrific piece of American history in which humans were valued as less than human spawned an outcry on social media.
Hashtags on Twitter expressing outrage included #racism and #noi’mnotkidding. Among the hundreds of comments on Facebook and in blogs was this one in response to a story on Gawker.com: “Cool story, bro. Personally, I use the 3/5’s compromise to illustrate to my students precisely why compromise should not be viewed as a de facto good. More often than not, those who extol the virtues of political compromise do so to excuse or conceal moral compromise. Of course, this kind of social and political analysis occurs in the social sciences and humanities, but whatevs dude. If you cut fast enough, soon no one will be able to call you on your bulls—.”
And this comment on the same page also illustrates the anger at Wagner’s extolling this as an “acceptable” compromise: “The Three-Fifths Compromise is a great example of the insidious consciousness of the pro-slavery class. They wanted it both ways: to think of Africans as chattel, like pack animals or workhorses or what have you, incapable of rational intelligence; but then they wanted them counted as people. Some may call it a great example of government at work. I see in it a condemnation of this whole they-were-just-people-of-their-times sentiment. They knew slavery was an injustice. They just didn’t give a f—.”
After the storm of criticism, Wagner published a lengthy apology on top of his letter and referenced it on Emory’s Facebook page. He said he considers slavery “heinous, repulsive, repugnant and inhuman,” but that his initial point was that “compromise pointed to a higher truth for both sides of the debate, though they did not recognize it at the time. For the states supporting slavery, the higher truth was that persons denied a vote, denied even their freedom, did not constitute part of the body politic—not even three-fifths of it—and therefore should not be used as a means to political power. For those opposed to slavery, the clearer truth was that if persons were counted as even a fraction of the body politic, their personhood demanded the full rights and privileges of citizens.”
His point, and his “lesson” to the current factions fighting in Washington, is that sometimes we must compromise in order to eventually get to an equitable solution. He also referenced Emory’s own current financial situation and the university’s plan to cut academic offerings. An article on Inside Higher Ed notes, however, that during Wagner’s tenure as president of the Atlanta-based university, its board has acknowledged and apologized for the school’s use of slaves in its early history, and in 2011 it organized a conference on “Slavery and the University.”
Wagner’s apology isn’t winning a lot of converts. Inside Higher Ed reports that faculty and students at the school and at other universities continue to be appalled that the president of a major university doesn’t understand how deeply offensive this analogy is. Roopika Risam, a Ph.D. student in English at Emory, blogged that Wagner’s greatest misstep was suggesting that his comment was merely a gaffe. “To invoke a narrative of gaffe by way of ‘clumsiness’ is to claim ultimate deniability and to abdicate responsibility for one’s words,” she wrote.
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