Emory University President James Wagner was trying to make a point about compromise in an article he wrote in the winter issue of Emory Magazine. He made his appeal by referencing the Constitution and the “three-fifths compromise.”
As expected, liberals were outraged, as this news item from the Emory News Center shows: “During a faculty meeting of the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, attending faculty voted to censure President Jim Wagner for a recent magazine column in which he references the ‘3/5ths compromise’ in the U.S. Constitution.”
As expected, President Wagner apologized: “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.”
Here’s what he should have said:
“You have paid a lot of money to get an education at Emory. It looks like that money was not well spent since it shows that you don’t know much about history, the Constitution, and the Three-Fifths compromise.”
As president of a prestigious university, President Wagner should have given them a lesson in history by explaining that the “three-fifths” clause has nothing to do with the idea that black slaves were considered “three-fifths” of a white person. If he doesn’t know this, then he shouldn’t be the president of a university.
The issue of slavery was a major concern at the Constitutional Convention and was discussed at length in the debates. Many delegates were staunch opponents of slavery. Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, for example. Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice of the United States, was president of the New York anti-slavery society. Northern Federalist leaders Rufus King and Gouvernour Morris were outspoken opponents of slavery and the slave trade. Elias Boudinot (1740–1821) was an early opponent of slavery. In 1786, he and Joseph Bloomfield organized New Jersey’s first antislavery society.
Contrary to what some historians and ignorant college students claim, the “three-fifths clause” is a clear indication that there was an attempt to end slavery constituionally. The Northern states did not want to count slaves at all. The Southern states hoped to include slaves in the population statistics in order to acquire additional representation in Congress to advance their political position.
“It took 30,000 people to get one congressman, and slaves outnumbered whites in slave states. It was the Democrat hope that with enough pro-slavery congressmen, they could overturn much of the abolitionist legislation Northern Republicans had previously passed.
“However, there was one philosophical problem: blacks in Southern states had no rights thus the North deemed it a joke that they only be counted when beneficial to Democrats. Northern abolitionists argued that since the South considered blacks their property, all ‘property’ should be counted for the purpose of determining congressional representation. Thus the Northern abolitionists would include their property: horses, cattle, homes, furniture, pets, etc. in their population tallies.
“The South denounced the proposal, so anti-slavery northerner James Wilson of Pennsylvania came up with a compromise. Blacks in the Southern states would be counted as “three-fifths” of a person. That way, it would take 50,000 people (instead of 30,000) in a district to earn congressional representation. That had the effect of limiting the power of the slave states.”
The compromise was to count slaves as “three-fifths” of a person for representation purposes. The fewer slaves counted, the fewer number of representatives. “It had NOTHING to do with the worth of a person and EVERYTHING to do with diminishing the power of” the pro-slavery Southern states.
The goal of the Northern delegates was to dilute Southern voting strength so as to outlaw slavery by constitutional means. “The struggle that took place in the convention was between the Southern delegates trying to strengthen the constitutional supports for slavery and the Northern delegates trying to weaken them.”1 If none of the slaves had been included in the population count for representation, as Northern delegates wanted, the slave states would have had only 41 percent of the seats in the House. If all the slaves had been included, as the pro-slave states wanted, the slave states would have had 50 percent of the seats. By agreeing to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes, the slaveholding states ended up with a minority voting position — 47 percent. Robert L. Goldwin concludes:
“[T]he point is that the ‘three-fifths clause’ had nothing at all to do with measuring the human worth of blacks. Northern delegates did not want black slaves included, not because they thought them unworthy of being counted, but because they wanted to weaken the slaveholding power in Congress. Southern delegates wanted every slave to count ‘equally with the Whites,’ not because they wanted to proclaim that black slaves were human beings on an equal footing with free white persons, but because they wanted to increase the pro-slavery voting power in Congress. The humanity of blacks was not the subject of the three-fifths clause; voting power in Congress was the subject.
Distorting the facts of history is reprehensible, and the folks at Emory University should know better.
- Robert A. Goldwin, “Why Blacks, Women & Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution,” Commentary (May 1987), 29. [↩]
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