Wednesday, February 20, 2013


!I am slow on the uptake sometimes, so my first reaction to the uproar over remarks by Emory University President James Wagner was to roll my eyes. Wagner had written an essay about the virtues of political compromise that mentioned the (in)famous 3/5ths compromise during the writing of the Constitution, in which  North and South agreed that slaves in the South would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress. I thought the critics were agog that Wagner had mentioned something that had involved slavery, and was thus giving some kind of "those were the good ol' days" imprimateur to the South's Peculiar Institution.

If only that had been true. Then I could have had fun at 21st century liberals getting their panties in a wad by judging 18th century history in the light of 21st century morals. But actually what Wagner did was to pick the worst--The. Very.Worst.--example for the point he was trying to make, which is that political compromise is the 10W-40 that makes democracy work. Why?

1. It's actually a counter-argument, a plausible example of why principle might at times trump all other considerations. Even in the 18th century there were people who ardently, passionately opposed slavery, the slave trade and agricultural economies which depended on slave labor. Theirs is a rare example of a principle which still looks pretty good 200-plus years later. If you want to advocate for compromise, don't hand the Tea Partiers a way to compare themselves with people who were morally ahead of their time.

2. It was a compromise based on an intellectually dishonest argument. How can slaves be three-fifths of a person on some occasions, like when you are counting population for Congressional representation, and a piece of livestock at others, like when you sell a mother's son for profit? When it comes to slavery, the South was always trying to have it both ways. "States' rights" was a cherished principle--until it came to the question of whether Massachusetts, say, could exercise its sovereign state power to refuse to send a fugitive slave back down South. Then, suddenly, it was all about property rights."Slaves cannot be allowed to fight for the Confederacy," said the leaders of the Confederacy at the beginning of the war; they were afraid of what those those loving, well-cared-for slaves might do once they got hold of some guns. By the end of the war, Confederate leaders had done a 180 on that question--with the exception of Alexander Stephens, who protested, "If slaves can fight, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Bingo!

President Wagner is an engineer, not a historian, so maybe we can excuse him for not having a better grasp of history. But hey, I was an Emory English major, which most definitely does not qualify me to run a university, and even I would know better than to pull something like this. To quote Homer Simpson: D'oh!

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