James W. Wagner, the president of Emory University, has stirred up a storm by referring to the "three-fifths compromise," in drafting the federal constitution in 1787, as an example of how polarized people could find common ground. Students have marched on campus denouncing racism and calling for Wagner's resignation. Wagner himself has called it a clumsy and regrettable mistake.
The "three-fifths compromise" was an agreement that in figuring out how many seats a state was entitled to in the federal congress, the whole number of free persons and three fifths of the whole number of "all other Persons," an embarrassed euphemism for people of African descent - by and large enslaved, would be counted. Whatever else this may have been, it was in fact an example of how polarized people could find common ground.
What they were polarized about was not the humanity of people from Africa. They weren't even thinking about that. Contrary to common myth, the Framers of our federal constitution did not agree that Americans of African descent were 3/5 of a human being each, or that a person of African descent was 3/5 the value of a "white man."
The "three-fifths compromise" was strictly a power play between states, over which states would carry how much weight in the federal legislature. Everyone was agreed that the House of Representatives would be based on population. It would be a mistake to even say that "universal manhood suffrage" or "free white males" was the basis of representation.
Who would have the right to vote in congressional elections? Those in each state who "shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature." In most states, that involved some minimum value of property ownership. Not everyone could vote, but the entire "free" population was counted in figuring how many representatives a state could elect.
Large numbers of non-voting free people who didn't own much property would nonetheless be counted in the census and add to the number of representatives in a state's delegation. Since enslaved persons were legally chattel property, could they be counted? Northern delegates said, if you count your slaves, then we should be able to count our mules, horses, and cattle. Are they men? If so, let them vote.
(That would have been a hollow bit of humanitarian sentiment, since even as men, or women, they would own enough property to vote. But the sentiment was not humanitarian, it was about power, distributed among states, governed by a minority of even the "free white male" inhabitants.)
Essentially, the northern delegates said slaves should count for zero, and southern delegates said slaves should count one hundred percent. Did the northern delegates thus set the value of Africans lower than the southern delegates did? Nope, they were all just trying to increase their own balance of power, at the expense of the rest.
So, taking the compromise as what it really was, settling a dispute about which property owning free white men should have how much power in the new government, it was indeed a pragmatic half-victory that "kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together."
Leslie Harris, a professor of history at the school, responded, "The three-fifths compromise is one of the greatest failed compromises in U.S. history.” She elucidated that “Its goal was to keep the union together, but the Civil War broke out anyway."
Indeed it did. But it would be quite accurate to say that it was the three-fifths compromise that made possible the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.
If no compromise had been reached, the southern states would have gone their own way, two, perhaps three confederacies would have formed along the Atlantic seaboard. New York and Rhode Island might have stayed out of any confederation. Virginia would have retained its claims to the entire northwest. There probably would have been no Northwest Ordinance, keeping slavery out of the states north of the Ohio River.
But, because the three-fifths compromise allowed the formation of one nation, it was possible four score and seven years later to insist that it remain one nation. When a band of men who had a large chunk of their capital invested in enslaved human beings tried to lead their states into secession from the union, there were others (south as well as north) who said, no, you can't do that. The end result, intended by almost nobody, was the end of slavery.
Which brings the gentle reader back to Wagner's original point: there are men and women in congress today who declare an unshakable commitment to be guided only by the language of the United States Constitution, and never to compromise their ideals. These men and women are ignorant of the process by which the constitution was written and ratified. These men and women are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, because the constitution was in fact the product of compromising principles.
Compromise almost always means compromising principles, because the people on the other side of the table also have principles, which is why there are differences to be compromised.
There are other good examples to draw on. Joe Slovo, a leader of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, was asked why the ANC's complete program (which included nationalization of all mines and natural resources) had not been implemented after Nelson Mandela was elected president. He replied, because we didn't win. The compromise between F.W. De Klerk and Nelson Mandela recognized that neither side had the power to vanquish the other. They could continue a low-level conflict for decades, or compromise. The compromise has indeed been messy and disappointing to just about everyone.
Likewise, when William F. Buckley, Jr. and S.I. Hayakawa were discussing the Panama Canal, Hayakawa said you don't negotiate from a position of weakness. Buckely astutely responded, of course you do. If you have the upper hand, and can have it all your way, you have no reason to negotiate. You only negotiate when you cannot get everything your own way.
Wagner's explanation to readers who found fault with his original column therefore remains quite appropriate to consider:
"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."
There's not much I agree on with Gary Fouse. He often writes like one of the last unreconstructed Orange County, California conservatives, updated to the 21st century. (One of the updates is Gary adores Jews and will do anything to support Israel, the exact opposite of traditional American conservatism. Fifty years ago, only liberals and socialists accepted Jews or supported Israel.)
But one thing we agree on is the Chicago Cubs. We're both Cubs fans, me from the midwest, Gary from California. There are other teams between Lake Michigan and the Pacific Ocean we could support... but we love the Cubs.
I had a chance to take these pictures from the southbound Red Line train, just before and after it pulled into the Addison Street "El" station. (That's elevated for all you University of California - Santa Cruz community studies majors.)
Wrigley Field is one of the last stadiums where you can watch the game from the roof tops of the surrounding neighborhood.
Its a little known fact that the hypothetical curse upon the Cubs some
100 years or so ago had a corollary, a way out. Think of this in terms
of how it would have sounded circa 1910.
"The Cubs will win the World Series when a black man is twice elected President of the United States." See how things change? It's gonna happen...
Front Porch Republic is a curious
amalgam. Jeff Taylor is an old-school Populist from a Protestant
background with firm pro-life convictions. Russell Arben Fox borders
on socialist convictions. Somehow, he and John Medaille, a rather
pragmatic Roman Catholic, agree that the Mondragon experiment in
Spain offers a healthy alternative to modern corporate capitalism,
which indeed it does. Then there are the mystical Roman Catholics who
long for the restoration of Papal Supremacy, over the whole world,
modestly academic counter-parts to the more imminently violent
jihadist vision of triumphant Islam.
What holds them all together, aside
from the camaraderie of annual conferences and a vibrant web site, is
something called “a sense of place.” Socialist, Papalist, or
Populist, Republicans, Libertarians, or Other, there is a fascination
with discrete local communities over large agglomerations of human
activity and political power. Necessarily, they share a healthy (and
justified) skepticism of liberals. They may or may not be
conservatives. So far, the Republic has not attracted much interest
from people of non-European extractions or darker complexions, but
one would have to dig very deep to insinuate racial prejudice.
One fine day, 31 August 2012 to be exact, James Matthew Wilson, one of
the younger Roman Catholic philosophers on the porch (his digital
photo at least looks youthful) posted "Against Rationalism, Idealism, and Abstraction." The essay was
noteworthy for the accusation that one evil of rationalism is the assumption, "If something cannot be known by everyone, it is not knowledge; only that
which can be controlled and summoned on demand for everyone’s empirical
inspection can be so known."
occasional commenter named Siarlys Jenkins, who by some odd
coincidence is the sole administrator and contributor to the widely
unread blogger page called Fundamentals (this page), posed a rational alternative more friendly to spirituality, metaphysical inquiry, and worship of a divine Creator: "If something cannot be known by everyone, cannot be summoned on demand
for everyone's empirical inspection, then it is not a fit subject for
legislation and coercion."
It is not directly known what Wilson thought of this, because he did not say. But two brothers, or cousins, or something, by the
name of Salyer jumped in as Wilson’s bulldogs, rather like Thomas
Huxley fighting the good fight for Charles Darwin.
R. Salyer, by far the more incoherent of the two, set the tone for a good deal of the ensuing discussion by asserting that "One way to reduce conflict is to establish justice amongst groups… and
another way is to simply deconstruct the value of the group such that
the “members” are no longer willing to fight for it." Jenkins
objected to the
notion of justice between groups, and indeed of consigning
individuals, whether they will or no, to designation as subjects of a
It would be most
unfair to try to summarize
further what the Salyers had to say.
and it is
available in the original for any who wish to peruse it. The ensuing
fray is difficult to follow coherently, since it is a meandering
trail of ad hominem insinuations, with various straw men for
landmarks to navigate by.
The premise which seems to have
provoked the greatest ire is this:
If one person, or group of persons,
wishes to coerce another person, then the burden of proof rests with
those proposing to coerce another. Sub-premise: coercion is generally
justified only by a credible assertion that the person (or group) to
be coerced is inflicting demonstrable harm on others.
This the Salyers vigorously deny –
naturally so, first,
Further, they evidently advocate that if a strong man imbued
with a passionate desire to coerce is able to impose his passion upon
others, it is his right, his duty, his sacred honor, forthwith to do
R. Salyer in particular essentially argues that the premise offered
above, or any premise whatsoever, is only one of many premises on
which a social order might rest, and therefore no better than any
other. By the crudest and most disinterested logic, this is
By this logic, there is no moral order
to the universe whatsoever, as ANY moral foundation has a claim to
allegiance no better and no worse than any other. This logic the
Salyers vigorously deny, by fiat. Neither of the Salyers wish to
follow their logic to its obvious and inescapable conclusion: that if
no premise is better than any other, then ANY premise that a
sufficiently strong person, or group, is able to impose, must
therefore become The Good Premise by virtue of its success. In short,
Might Makes Right.
While the author of the original essay, James
Wilson, had nothing further to contribute, he displayed the courage of
his convictions in one concluding act: immediately after his bulldogs
offered their latest expression of wounded outrage, he closed the
article to further comments, insuring that they had the last word.
Cowardice such as this ill suits either a front porch or a republic.
But some arguments cannot bear the weight of either facts or reason.
Indeed, the original essay was offered
in direct opposition to reason. The entire cabal apparently worships
the vigorous and brutal display of unreasoning passion that was the
true hallmark of the middle ages. The music was beautiful, the
standards colorful, the castles have a haunting beauty, now that they
project no power upon the literate descendants of the over-taxed
peasantry. Life, however, was no bed of roses, nor paragon of virtue.
I come from a long line of serfs, who
left Europe for America to be free, and fought to establish that
freedom. We are well out of all that Old Europe, really old Europe,
imposed upon a weary and traumatized world. The age of reason has not
been pure blue skies and bright sunshine, but at least the
possibilities for humanity to flourish are greater than they were
under self-righteous tyranny.