Emory President is right about "three-fifths compromise" ... for what it's worth
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."