Response from the President

President Wagner responds to readers regarding his recent column

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine.  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.

In that essay, to illustrate the often painful but necessary process of finding a way forward in a politically polarized time, I used the notorious “3/5ths compromise” in the US Constitution.  That compromise is articulated in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, in which taxes and representation are apportioned to the states according to their population, defined as “the whole Number of free Persons, . . . and, excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

The phrase “all other Persons” was understood by the framers of the Constitution to refer to enslaved African Americans.  To recognize that this part of the Constitution was from the outset a blot on the document and a source of controversy to this day, we need only recall that in reading the text of the Constitution publicly two years ago, members of Congress omitted this offending paragraph, claiming that the Thirteenth Amendment (prohibiting slavery) superseded it and made it unnecessary. That’s one way to forget history: ignore it.

The point was not that this particular compromise was a good thing in itself.   It was a repugnant compromise.  Of course it is not good to count one human being as three fifths of another or, more egregiously, as not human at all, but property. Rather, the first point of the essay was that the Constitution had to be a deeply compromised document in order to be adopted at all. If something is compromised it is inherently weak, unstable.  In the Constitution’s case, that weakness resulted in ongoing struggles over slavery and, eventually, civil war. In the long run, critical amendments have helped resolve some of the document’s weaknesses and instabilities. We are still working at it.

The second point of the essay was that despite its weakness, the Constitution pointed toward (though it did not fulfill) a better reality to which its creators aspired. The compromise about slavery, viewed from our perspective, established a nation at least in part on the backs of people whose rights—indeed, whose humanity--were unrecognized. At the same time, 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.

We see these truths in hindsight. 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.

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.

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