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Slavery-Era Solutions For Modern Problems? Emory's President Thinks So

The Three-Fifths Compromise as political genius? Makes you wonder where Emory University President James Wagner went to school.

All agree today that with the two political parties so divided America continues to lose badly. But now President James Wagner of Emory University in Atlanta has discovered a way out. In an article for Emory Magazine, he recently suggested that Americans reach back to the Constitution's "Three-Fifths Compromise" for a fine example of how different factions should work toward a "common goal."

Wagner explained, "The two sides [North and South] 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." He saw this as "a good thing in itself" and a way of "working towards the highest aspiration they both shared."


The Three-Fifths Compromise was not a compromise so much as the slaveholders' dream. First, in counting each enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person for voting purposes it classified Africans as less than human in the Constitution. Then, it handed extra voting power to their owners—on the basis of people they owned! Further, it insured in each southern state this wealthy minority would dominate the government.

It gets better. This extra voting power granted the country's slaveholding minority decisive power over each branch of the Federal government, the Electoral College and influenced the choices made by each President, Congress, and Supreme Court. Oh yes, and people of color were subjected to rules made by their enemies. And even white people lived not in a democracy but under rule by a few.

The Three-Fifths Compromise led to further surrenders to slaveholders that created disunity, conflict, bloodshed, and eventual civil war. In what way was this "a highest aspiration" or "a good thing" that drew "the country more closely together?"

Wagner has since backtracked from his statements, saying that his point was not that "this particular compromise was a good thing in itself" but that "the Constitution had to be a deeply compromised document in order to be adopted at all."

But all this begs the question, how did the President of a major university in a multiracial city and state in 2013 reach such odd conclusions in the first place? Where did he get his education? As a citizen of Atlanta how could he be so callous about the humanitarian issues he raises about his fellow citizens?

If a student wrote this on a test essay, he would be questioned about his knowledge, facts and responses to fellow human beings, so what do we do with a university president who offers it from on high?

Slave market Atlanta, Georgia 1864 image via Wikimedia Commons

William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and forty other books on African American history. You can find more essays and a list of books by Katz at

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