By John S. Rosenberg
This may be a first: the president of a major research university has just been formally censured by his faculty — a no confidence vote may be coming next month — because of an opinion about a historical event (and a conventional, mainstream opinion at that) he expressed in a university publication.
Emory University President James Wagner’s transgression was his opinion that the adoption of the Constitution provides a model of how it is both possible and desirable to compromise, even over bitterly divisive issues. Regarding the controversial compromise that provided counting three-fifths of the slaves for the purpose of state representation in the new Congress, he argued that “[p]ragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.” Both North and South, he concluded, “found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared — the aspiration to form a more perfect union.”
After Salon called Wagner’s approval of the compromise that led to the adoption of the Constitution “a shockingly horrible column” and expressed surprise that a major college president could hold “such strange historical views,” the Emory campus, social media, and lefty blogs erupted in a ballistic paroxysm of opprobrium. His column, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “was met with a wave of fury.” Inside Higher Ed noted that it “infuriated many on his campus and elsewhere.” Emory’s Black Student Union and the local NAACP described it as an example of “systemic racism.” In These Times noted accusingly that, “situated in Atlanta, which is 54 percent African-American, Emory had a 9 percent African-American class of 2013.”
Wagner soon issued a groveling apology, stating that he should have made clear that “I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman,” and that “to count one human being as three fifths of another or, more egregiously, as not human at all, but property” was “repugnant,” an admission that seems to undermine rather than clarify his original argument. In any event his critics were not in a forgiving mood, and as the Chronicle reported sought “more contrition from their president.”
The most striking response to Wagner’s column was a faculty letter to the president signed by 31 members of the Emory departments of History and African American Studies. It called Wagner’s argument “an insult” and stated, incredibly, that “[t]his is the first time that any of us has seen anyone point to the three-fifths clause as an example of what good, right-thinking individuals can accomplish when they avoid ideological fixity.” One of the signers, history professor Leslie Harris, just asserted on NPR’s “ Weekend Edition Saturday” that the slavery compromises were not only a flaw of the Constitution but “a fatal flaw” that “led us into civil war.”
Most commentary on the Constitution argues or assumes that its adoption, and the consequent birth of the new nation that it created, was a Good Thing that would have been impossible without its compromises over slavery. One need look no further than a PBS series on “The Constitution and the Idea of Compromise” — PBS is not generally regarded as a racist slavermongering institution — to find something almost identical to the view that the Emory scholars claim never to have seen:
While many of the Founding Fathers including George Washington viewed slavery as inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, they knew that there was little chance of abolishing slavery at the time. After all, if those opposed to slavery insisted on its abolition, slave states could have walked out of the convention and formed their own nation with a pro-slavery constitution.
“The distasteful but nonnegotiable reality,” the eminent early American historian Joseph Ellis insists, “was that one could have a nation with slavery, or one could not have a nation. Every argument about the accommodations with slavery reached by the framers that summer in Philadelphia should be made within the context of that reality.”
There is, of course, an argument that it would have been better not to have a nation. In condemning the three-fifths compromise the Emory 31 implicitly echo the views of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who famously burned the Constitution and denounced it as “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.”
It would have been interesting to hear Wagner’s critics argue the counterfactual history their denunciation of the three-fifths clause must favor. If a new nation including the slave states had not been formed, to pick one example, the importation of slaves — prohibited in 1808 as the Constitution allowed — could have continued indefinitely. That would have entrenched slavery much more deeply than the Constitution’s compromises.
“[O]ur country’s fiscal conundrums,” Wagner wrote in his unintentionally incendiary column, “invite our leaders to wrestle with whether they will compromise or hold fast to certain of their pledges….” One of those leaders, as it happens, has revealed his view of compromise, and on the very subject at issue here.
In The Audacity of Hope, one of his two (to date) books on his favorite subject, Barack Obama confronted the debate between those who see “the Founding Fathers only as hypocrites and the Constitution only as a betrayal of the grand ideals set forth by the Declaration of Independence; [who agree] with early abolitionists that the Great Compromise between North and South was a pact with the Devil,” and others, “representing the safer, more conventional wisdom, [who] insist that all the constitutional compromise on slavery … was a necessary, if unfortunate requirement for the formation of the Union.”
“How can I,” Obama plaintively asked, “with the blood of Africa coursing through my veins, choose sides in such a dispute? I can’t.” But yes he could, and very clearly did:
… it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty. The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison who first sounded clarion call for justice…. It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free. I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable — in other words, the absolutists — that have fought for a new order…. The blood of slaves reminds us that our pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice.
The president (of the United States, not Emory) clearly shares with cranks, zealots, prophets, agitators, absolutists, terrorists (John Brown hacked opponents to death with a sword in Kansas), and 31 members of the Emory History and African American Studies departments a low opinion of compromise.
But let us give the final word on this matter not to the cranks and zealots but to the iconic embodiment of American practicality, Benjamin Franklin, quoted here by historian Joseph Ellis:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present: but, Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it; for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change my opinion even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
(Photo: Emory President James Wagner. Credit: Emory University.)