Historians are astonished at the essay written by James Wagner, President of Emory University. Writing in the Emory’s monthly magazine, Wagner extolled the virtue of compromise, and held up, as his shining example, the THREE FIFTHS COMPROMISE(!!!!) of the US Constitution.
This is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. The three fifths compromise was about slavery. When deciding how many congressmen a state was entitled to, would slaves count as people? That would give the South vastly larger representation. Or, since they had no legal status except as property, would they not count at all? That would favor the North, where slavery was much less common. The solution was that slaves would count as 3/5ths of a human being.
It’s a notorious compromise, in which a bunch of white men got together to decide how much relative advantage they could get from slaves without upsetting the status quo. It’s what lead William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist, to term the Constitution “a covenant with death, an agreement with hell.” Garrison would regularly burn copies of the Constitution to dramatize his point: Wagner, on the other hand, said of this compromise, which enshrined slavery so firmly it would take a Civil war to end it,
Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.
This is both true and ridiculous. Compromise isn’t good in and of itself: if tow people decide to compromise by not robbing you of everything you own the fundamental act is still immoral. The “common good” and common goal, in his view, did not include and should not have included the slaves: the “they” in this case is a group of white people for whom slaves are purely the subject of white men’s self interested rational calculation. And for Wagner, apparently that’s how it should be. It’s simply astonishing that a University President–particularly the President of a southern university with deep roots in slavery itself–could write this.
But it’s offensive on several other levels. The “3/5ths” number was not arrived at because the “founders” believed African Americans were 3/5ths of a white man. It was based on the widely held belief, described by Adam Smith and others, that a slave would only do three fifths the work of a free man. It was all about productivity. Your slave would only produce 3/5ths the yield of a wage worker or free person.
Wagner’s editorial, remarkably, is about the necessity of cutting the humanities.
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.
But you just held up the 3/5th compromise as a noble example. “We,” undefined here, need to compromise to preserve the University. Students and teacher in the humanities, in his imagining, must play the role of slaves–of no importance in and of themselves, except as they advance a larger agenda which they have no part in shaping. That;s what comes out of the example of the 3/5ths compromise
It’s not a surprise that Wagner’s Ph.D. is in engineering. He probably thought to himself that the return on investment for humanities–measured in the thing most dear to he heart of University professors, alumni donations–was much higher for defense contractors and biz school profs. possibly 2/5ths higher. An English prof will only generate 3/5ths of the revenue generated by a n engineering prof.
The value of the humanities has always been contested in American universities, and always will be–the humanities don’t reduce easily to a pure dollar value.
Instead they translate into something more difficult to define in monetary terms: a sense of history, of morality, of justice, of proportion, a sense of context, and understanding of the meaning of compromise and the meaning of equality.
Update: Wagner has issued a response in which he apologizes for hurting anyone’s feelings–the classic non-apology–and reiterates that he thinks slavery was a bad, bad thing. He writes:
The point was not that this particular compromise was a good thing in itself. It was a repugnant compromise. Of course it is not good to count one human being as three fifths of another or, more egregiously, as not human at all, but property. Rather, the first point of the essay was that the Constitution had to be a deeply compromised document in order to be adopted at all.
Of course, that’s not what you wrote the first time, Mr President. In humanities classes, among the students, there are direct consequences for this kind of thing.