Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Three-Fifths Clause In the News!

As you may have heard, Emory University President James Wagner wrote a column earlier this year in which he praised the Three-Fifths Clause as an example of Constitutional compromise:

During a Homecoming program in September, a panel of eminent law school alumni discussed the challenges of governing in a time of political polarization—a time, in other words, like our own. The panel included a former US senator, former and current congressmen, and the attorney general for Georgia.

One of these distinguished public servants observed that candidates for Congress sometimes make what they declare to be two unshakable commitments—a commitment to be guided only by the language of the US Constitution, and a commitment never, ever to compromise their ideals. Yet, as our alumnus pointed out, the language of the Constitution is itself the product of carefully negotiated compromise.

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.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. 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.
The usual suspects called for President Wagner's head and he was forced to grovel:
A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine. Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.
With this background, and as one who has read a fair amount about the Three-Fifths Clause, I enjoyed running across this column by one brave soul who dared to speak truth to PC power:
Wagner’s travails strike a personal note: In some twenty years of teaching the Introduction to American Government course at the University of Illinois-Urbana I have often made the identical argument, that the three-fifths compromise was a brilliant political compromise to solve a grave political problem. I made that point in front of as many as 1400 students including many African American students (and who knows how many apprentice PC commissars). I informed them that the compromise was about representation of the states—the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives—and in principle had nothing to do with slavery per se. I explained that anti-slavery New England delegates wanted slaves to count as zero for purposes of representation, while Southern delegates pressed to have each counted as a full person. Without these artful compromises, I said, both the slave states and New England would have left the Union.

And that wasn’t the end of my heresies. My lectures also explained how the Founders cleverly finessed the slavery issues with multiple compromises, including that the word “slave” never appeared in the Constitution.


Yes, everybody agrees that while many Founders had a low opinion of slaves, others believed that slavery was a horrible wrong, but the consensus was that all these slave-related constitutional compromises were unavoidable adjustments to an unpleasant political reality if the Union was to survive. Only the most strident ideologue would insist that the Constitutional Convention could have abolished slavery and still kept the Union. 
Information about the illustration, entitled Abolition of the Slave Trade, or the Man the Master (Britain 1789), may be found at the link.

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