Three-Fifths of a Truth Is A Whole Insult

My alma mater, Emory University, has been in the news in a not-so-good way, in connection with a column for the institution’s magazine by the institution’s president, James Wagner.

Quoting a recent campus panelist who talked about those who hold to the U.S. Constitution as a document presenting universal and absolute truths, Wagner noted that the Constitution itself was obviously the product of multiple compromises. So far, so good: it is useful to combat the pernicious idea that the U.S. Constitution came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets and must be worshiped as a form of divine revelation.

But Wagner went on specifically to tout a particular product of compromise as showing the flawed but ultimately productive nature of the process:

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides 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.

I don’t know who among the relatively small number of people who actually read Emory Magazine drew attention to the column, but it’s sure blown up on Wagner big-time, and he’s now issued a defensive clarification/apology for citing the three-fifths provision as an example of noble compromise in the national interest.

Not being from the Deep South, Wagner may have failed to fully grasp that you do not make casual remarks about slavery in the region where “old times there are not forgotten.” But believe it or not, it actually gets a little worse: if you read the entire column, Wagner seems to be alluding as well to the necessity of unequal treatment for liberal arts education in the modern university:

At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal—the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.

I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.

Now he didn’t come right out and say that those involved in the liberal arts at Emory may need to be happy with 60% of the resources showered on more readily fundable activities. But as liberal arts major (in an interdisciplinary Humanities program we called the “pre-unemployment curriculum”) who spent a good part of my four years at the school back in the day attending classes in World War II-era quonset huts while (as we joked at the time) the medical school deployed gold-plated bedpans, I would imagine those words still stung.

So Wagner–or perhaps some serf who writes his Emory Magazine columns for him–really managed to pull off a complex insult to a lot of different people. I only hope the school isn’t spending too much of its not-so-boundless resources paying some consultant for advice on damage control.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.