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Emory University president James Wagner has apologized for holding up the deplorable Three Fifths Compromise, a deal between Northern and Southern states which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, as a wonderful example of political compromise.
In a column titled “As American as … Compromise” , in the winter issue of Emory magazine, Wagner writes about the fiscal cliff and the importance of keeping one’s mind open to other points of view. Then he uses the Three Fifths Compromise as a shining example of compromise in American politics:
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.
Wagner later apologized for “the h**t caused by not communicating more my own beliefs.” He says that slavery was “h*****s, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay.”