Home / General / Almost Verbatim Emory University President James Wagner: “The 3/5 Compromise is a Model to Which We Should Aspire. Also, the Liberal Arts are Like Slaves and Should Be Treated As Such”

Almost Verbatim Emory University President James Wagner: “The 3/5 Compromise is a Model to Which We Should Aspire. Also, the Liberal Arts are Like Slaves and Should Be Treated As Such”


The president of Emory University evidently lacks people to make sure he doesn’t say insane, horrible things.

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.




I think we can all be impressed by a bunch of elite southern white men discussing politics and coming to the Three-Fifths Compromise as ideal legislation. That one would say this publicly is even more bizarre–does he not have people to make sure he doesn’t actually articulate the incredibly offensive things he believes? Or, good lord could this be, is this the compromise editorial? If so, I don’t want to see the first draft.

But wait, there’s more. Because see where this ends!!!

Part of the messy inefficiency of university life arises from the intention to include as many points of view as possible, and to be open to the expectation that new ideas will emerge. The important thing to keep in view is that this process works so long as every new idea points the way toward a higher shared ideal, namely truth.

At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. 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.

I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.

As a historian, where does this lead me? I mean, I already know that we liberal arts people probably do in fact count as 3/5 of a person when it comes to university decision making, but if university presidents are going to openly compare us to slaves, well I just can’t wait for the future. Why even pay us at all? The strike of a whip should force us into line!!!

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  • Wagner Has a History

    This particular editorial is clearly problematic, but Wagner has a clear history of problematic approaches to these issues. See his suppression of student protest in 2010.


  • Vance Maverick

    I thought your link would be to a cell phone video smuggled out of a smoke-filled room, but no — he published this in the alumni magazine under his own name and Emory’s.

    The 3/5 compromise isn’t just evil, it’s frivolously so, in relation to the giant smoldering moral atrocity it takes for granted, as if there were interstate quarrels over the tolls to be paid on the Trail of Tears.

  • c u n d gulag

    And “urban” votes should only be counted as 2/5th of a vote, since there are usually more minorities in cities, than there are in the suburbs – and a hell of a lot less than in rural areas.

    • c u n d gulag

      Uhm… that was *SNARK*, lest anyone not recognize it.

      • These days you have to be careful. Never know when a metaphor or something is taken as literal. Trust me.

        • You have 3/5 of my trust.

      • Atticus Dogsbody

        Yeah, riiight. Next you’ll be telling us that some of your best friends are “urban”.

    • (Snark duly noted.)

      I’m replying to this just because it’s the latest comment I’ve read about this (here and elsewhere) that seems to miss what seems to me a significant feature of the 3/5 of a person compromise. That a slave’s vote was to be only 60% of a non-slave voter’s vote is just half of the compromise: the other half is that that vote would, in effect, be cast by someone else.

      So, Erik, it’s not only that we liberal arts people probably do in fact count as 3/5 of a person when it comes to university decision making, it’s also that when you’re counted as that, your diminished formal influence is being wielded by some non-liberal-arts people (and presumably not in your interest).

      One might even say that a person in the position of a slave or a liberal arts professor, under such rules, has -6/5 of a vote!

      • UserGoogol

        Yes, this fact needs to be repeated over and over again. Being counted “as a whole person” would have made slaves worse off, not better. The fact that they were only counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of congressional apportionment wasn’t dehumanizing, the fact that they were slaves was.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          The best analogy today would actually probably be counting disenfranchised felons in Congressional reapportionment.

    • Mike G

      Hell, as a Californian I’m worth 1/66th of a Wyoming resident in US Senate representation.

      • efgoldman

        And about the same vs. mine (RI).

  • somethingblue

    You know who else was a big fan of Wagner …

    • Manju

      Nietzsche? Natalie Wood?

      • commie atheist

        +1 for Nietzche, -1 for Natalie.

  • Naw, he’s got somebody to do that stuff. It’s the same person who held that job for Larry Summers.

  • Jonny Scrum-half

    This guy may or may not be a jerk, but this post is a reach. It’s clear from the quoted text that he was using the 3/5 Compromise as a model for the process of opposing viewpoints reaching a compromise goal, not about the substance of the compromise.

    • Total

      And Mussolini made the trains run on time; shall we invoke him for lessons on public transit?

      • John

        My understanding is that Mussolini did not actually make the trains run on time.

        • They were all some exact integer multiple of 24 hours late.

        • montag2

          I remember the comments from an old Italian woman who was a young girl in `30s Italy, who said, “Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time. But, if you said he didn’t, the police or the Black Shirts beat you up. So, everybody said that he did.”

          Which, in itself, is an interesting commentary on the nature of compromise….

        • chris y

          When did that stop anybody?

        • Dave

          I believe the actual origin of that is that he made sure the trains ran on time for the foreign tourists going to the Alpine Lakes, etc. For everyone else, not so much…

      • Anonymous

        If he did, why wouldn’t we see how he did it to see if there was anything more we could learn. I’ll grant it’s a tightrope…on one pragmatism and good governance and on the other Marge Schott thinking Hitler went just a little too far.

        Them again, I feel the same way about the 3/5 compromise: either have a Republic of 13 states with it or continue with Articles. It’s not like the Southern States would have ratified the dang thing woot the Compromise and that includes Maryland and Delaware.

        As odious as it was, I prefer the Constitution as amended to the Articles of Confederation, which protected NO slaves

        • commie atheist

          Boy, that “as amended” is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence.

          • timb

            Because it wasn’t amended prior to ratification and since? Because, the system of governance we have now is not the same as we had then and it’s possible to see the place where we are now and think things are sorta working out

            • commie atheist

              Just that the Constitution, as initially ratified and with amendments 1-10, also “protected NO slaves.”

    • Jamie

      Fair enough. We will assume that you are 60% of a person. You are fine with that, right?

      • Manju

        Well, technically…0% would’ve been better for the slave.

      • UserGoogol


        • commie atheist

          Rage, rage, against the common misconception.

    • FLRealist

      Surely there are a lot of other examples of compromises that are less offensive than the 3/5 Compromise that a president of a university could maybe, possibly, use?

      • Vance Maverick

        How about the Missouri Compromise?

        • The Ghost of David Broder

          27-20 or Fight!

        • Linnaeus

          If the president of Emory wanted to stick to the Constitution, he could have used the example of Congress being a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in one house and equal representation in the other as the result of a very significant compromise.

          • John

            Indeed, that was the so-called “Great Compromise” of the Constitutional Convention.

      • Manju

        I would’ve went with ““let’s spend some time together”.

        • sparks

          You an Ed Sullivan fan or something?

      • GC

        The compromise between population-based and state-based representation — our beloved bicameral legislature, which balanced the interests of big states and little states — was right there in the Constitution if he wanted it. He chose this one because part of the glorious spirit of “compromise” he’s advocating is someone having to eat shit.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        The 1938 Munich Accords? The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact?

    • Vance Maverick

      It’s clear that that was his intent. But if he’s really not even a little bit distracted by the substance, he plainly values process over people.

      Tangentially, I couldn’t figure out what compromise he was advocating. Just compromise for its own sake, because it’s awesome?

      • commie atheist

        It’s the Broderian “Republicans want to destroy the safety net completely and cut taxes on the rich while Democrats want to reduce the safety net a little and raise taxes on the rich a teeny tiny bit, so surely both sides can negotiate a compromise exactly in the middle.”

    • Julian

      There are better and worse compromises in the world. He picked a worse one. When you pick a worse compromise you run the risk of looking like you endorse it.

      • Vance Maverick

        Are you saying there’s a right answer to the question of how slaves should be counted for apportionment and taxation purposes?

        • David Broder

          Well some people say they shouldn’t count at all, others say they should be fully counted. The answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.

          • commie atheist

            Damn you, Broder.

            • David Broder

              Already happened.

        • McAllen

          Well, yes. Assuming getting rid of slavery isn’t an option, the answer is 0%.

          • Assuming getting rid of slavery isn’t an option, the answer is 0%.

            Only if you also assume that the percentage has to be positive. Personally, I’d go for -100%, or maybe even -200%. Hell, break the bank: -1000%. (There’s got to be a point at which the number of Representatives from some slave state goes below zero; we might want to stop before that. But hey, they’d still have two Senators!!!)

      • Scott Lemieux

        Right. I don’t actually have a problem with defending the compromises made with slave states in the Constitution; it’s not like a slave-free national union was an option. But I wouldn’t cite this as an example of the values of compromise either,

        • it’s not like a slave-free national union was an option.

          Do you mean it was not an option considered by the framers or not an option at all?

          • Scott Lemieux

            I mean, clearly several states would not have accepted a constitution that banned slavery, and that included Virginia. So it was only an option if you think that the “United States” should have excluded any existing slave states, a result that would have created a much weaker country while not actually emancipating any slaves.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              Well, maybe emancipating some Northern slaves, Scott. But you’re entirely correct that it would have done nothing for the vast majority of enslaved Americans, who were in the South.

              • Scott Lemieux

                Let me modify that to “would not have emancipated any slaves who were almost immediately emancipated anyway.” At any rate, arguing that the framers should have just rammed an anti-slavery constitution right down Virigina and South Carolina’s throat is some pretty egregious green lanternism.

            • John

              Slavery was still legal in most states in 1787, no? Looking at the “free states” in 1787:

              1. New York and New Jersey didn’t even begin the process of abolishing slavery until well after the Constitutional Convention.

              2. Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island had passed laws for gradual emancipation, but more or less nobody had yet been actually emancipated.

              3. Massachusetts had had slavery declared as contrary to the 1780 state constitution in 1783. Slavery basically ceased thereafter. The case in New Hampshire appears to have been somewhat analogous, but less clear-cut – there were still 158 slaves there according to the 1790 Census.

        • Anonymous

          THIS x 50

    • commie atheist

      Precisely, And it’s a horrible model to use.

    • FlipYrWhig

      He shoud have used something less inflammatory. Wasn’t there a mutually beneficial deal a while back involving the Sudetenland?

      • Origami Isopod


        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          And dont forget Poland….in 1939! That deal surprised everyone as Nazi Germany and the USSR were sworn enemies. Ain’t compromise grand?

    • djangermats

      Uh yes, you are correct, he did bluthely go on about the 3/5 compromise as some sort of ideal of compromise while showing no awareness of the ghastly substance of his remarks.

      Congrats on working out what the thread is, you know, about

  • Barbara Smith

    If I were an alum of Emory, the university would not get any money from me for the rest of my life and beyond. The president’s words are so bizarre that I have to wonder about his judgment, the judgment of the Alumni Association, Development Office, and university PR.

    In addition to all the offensiveness about the 3/5ths argument, wasn’t the whole letter written to justify providing less $$ to the liberal arts? This issue alone would have gotten my goat – without the extra bonus of racial insensitivity.

  • Origami Isopod
    • efgoldman

      Ugh. His jargon is even worse than the large financial services company I work for. I didn’t think such a thing was possible.

      “empower faculty responsibility for future opportunities.”

      “courageous decision to imagine and implement a strategy for greater excellence and distinction.”

      “We need to continue this foot race together, encouraging each other and from time to time forgiving each other, rising above our occasional discomforts and applying our best selves to achieve and serve the excellence of mind and greatness of heart to which we are called and to which we aspire,” Wagner said

      Gad. Sweet Strunk & White on crutches. Word salad as bad and meaningless as any speech given by Caribou Barbie.
      Speeches like that are the reason I stopped going to company meetings, even though there’s free beer.

      • John

        To no one’s surprise, Wagner is an engineer by training.

  • ChrisTS

    UGH. Emory has had a number of – at best – so-so Presidents. I expected that Wagner would continue the trend without either lasting very long or doing much damage. But, he really has been an example of foot-in mouth disease.

    I am a graduate of one of Emory’s liberal arts graduate programs. I thank anyone’s gods that I got out before this clown was in charge.

  • Sly

    Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

    I believe it was General Sherman who discovered the utility of a country “drawn more closely together,” particularly when it came to setting Georgia and the Carolinas on fire while his army sang John Brown’s Body.

  • Timurid

    Here’s an outtake from Emory! The Musical. Watch for the Humanities vs. STEM conflict at the end…

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  • LeeEsq

    Can somebody please tell me why people do not think about the full ramifications of what they are saying before they speak? This speech was probably written out in advance before Wagner gave it. It was probably proof-read at least once. Somebody should have been intelligent enough to enough how stupid and crazy it sounded including Wagner. Evil is one thing. Stupid evil is intolerable.

    • cpinva

      because to these people, there are no ramifications. they are, as we speak, absolutely stunned that anyone might see something wrong with this. of course, they see nothing wrong with the whole 3/5’s compromise itself, nor do they recognize that anyone involved in slavery was the absolute worst human being on the planet, only human by virtue of DNA.

      it’s possible some of them had ancestors who owned slaves. to recognize the horror of that institution, and anything connected with it, would require recognizing great, great, great grandpa as the horrific human being that he was, and that they are descended from psychopaths. their heads would literally explode.

      so no, no one noticed.

      • JoyfulA

        As a former proofreader, I can tell you I’ve pointed out many such problems and worse over the years, to no avail. I was one of the little people.

        • cpinva

          you probably paid taxes too.

          “I was one of the little people.”

    • John

      Wagner likely even has a professional speech-writing staff. I have a friend who used to write speeches for various (sub-president) bigwigs at an Ivy League school, so I’d guess that the President of Emory would have someone to write most of his speeches for him.

  • Joe

    If you want to cite stupid constitutional compromises, a better choice is the 2 senator rule, a rule Madison himself was very upset about (he wanted bicameralism but the Reynolds v. Sims sort). I realize some (wrongly) think that was all about slavery, so maybe that won’t be good enough, but it’s a bit less stupid.

    But, I’m not quite seeing the last part — where are they specifiably comparing liberal art professors to slaves or something? It is cited as a means of compromise, to pass a bottleneck to set up a means to do good things, like “a more perfect” union or something.

    I guess stupid examples encourages focusing just on it and making it sound even more stupid. Don’t want that? Don’t use stupid examples.

  • Cartman

    No snark:

    Republicans stealing elections by not counting minority and poor voters votes is a reality.

    Republicans aren’t counting black votes at all in many important places around the country.

    Slavery was also about not being allowed to vote (or own “arms”) as well as the forced generational servitude and we need to start calling out these right-wing slavers for their bullshit instead of trying to be nice to them.

    • cpinva

      we need to start calling them out for the psychopaths that they are.

      “Slavery was also about not being allowed to vote (or own “arms”) as well as the forced generational servitude and we need to start calling out these right-wing slavers for
      their bullshit instead of trying to be nice to them.”

      bob somerby keeps telling me i should be nice to these people, that calling them what they are won’t change their minds. with all due respect to mr. somerby, bullshit. those people aren’t ever going to change their minds, no matter how nice you are to them. in fact, being nice to them is contra-indicated, it makes them feel, wrongly, that they have a legitimate position. they don’t, and should be told that repeatedly, no matter how much it hurts their little fee fee’s. the “27%” need to be told, repeatedly, that they’re dumbasses, racists and mysogynsts, with no letup. they need to be told this loudly, in full hearing range of everyone around, and pointed at, so they can’t hide. if they’re that goddamned proud of themselves, they’ll stand up and self-identify. it won’t change them, but everyone else will know who they are, and everyone else will avoid them like the plague.

      • witless chum

        Depends who were supposed to be nice to. Some Republican voters have probably been gulled into thinking the world is full of welfare queens and vote fraud, for instance, because those things flatter their prejudices. Somerby’s idea seems to be by sorta treating them like people who are misinformed, or have made an honest mistake, we’ll catch more flies. I tend to think that people who’ll believe things like that are pretty much impervious to fact, but maybe.

        Republican politicians, however, need to get called on this shit and more, and deserve nothing in the way of civility whether they know better or not.

        • cpinva

          they aren’t “misinformed”, they’re intentionally fucking ignorant, deserving of nothing but my contempt. mr. somerby means well, and i appreciate that. however, at some point one has to accept the fact that some people are just dumb as rocks, because being dumb as rocks suits them, and works to their advantage. then they are deserving of nothing but abuse, the harsher, the better.

  • Joe
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  • Alex

    The problem here, beyond the appearance of celebrating the 3/5 clause, is that the example of compromise he’s invoking was not a successful compromise at all. We gave southern slave holders grossly disproportionate political representation in perpetuity, and they STILL thought it necessary to secede from the union. Today we could again offer rural white conservatives grossly disproportionate political influence in perpetuity (beyond that which already exists), and we’d STILL end up with a form of “deficit reduction” that left Medicare and military spending untouched, while “balancing the budget” through cuts to foreign aid, food stamps, and PBS. What’s ridiculous about Wagner’s editorial is that even a compromise on the scale of the one he’s celebrating wouldn’t do anything to solve the problem he believes to be in need of solving.

    (For the record, I think there’s a simple solution here: don’t freak out about short-term deficits in the first place, because the policy changes that short-term deficit reduction would require are both unnecessary and unpopular.)

  • This is why I use Emory Magazine as a coaster. This was actually published, so at least a handful of editors and confidants surely read it and thought, “sounds about right, yeah”

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  • Nikki

    James wagner just confirmed that racism still exist and just how people in higher positions really feel about slavery. He is an idiot, with no sense of respect for human rights. I believe that he along with a lot of these hate filled people in leadership positions need to be cut down. We have a freedom of speech, but when you are in leadership, that platform should be used to encourage all people. This statement just gives us a closer view into the intensions of his heart. He does not deserve to be president of no univeristy.

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