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!!!