Emory president apologizes for citing slavery compromise as example of pragmatism
Emory's James Wagner drew outrage after citing a compromise that counted three-fifths of slaves for representational purposes.
February 18th, 2013
04:51 PM ET

Emory president apologizes for citing slavery compromise as example of pragmatism

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Published over the weekend, Emory University President James Wagner's winter message reflected on the importance of compromise in politically divided times.

The example he chose to illustrate his point, however, was rather unfortunate.

And before the weekend was over, he was apologizing for citing the so-called three-fifths compromise in which Northern and Southern states agreed to count three-fifths of the slave population for determining representation.

"A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine," Wagner wrote in an apology posted above his original column.

"Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman," he said. "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."

The apology came after comments lit up social media. Let's just say some people were downright offended. If you were on Twitter, you probably saw all the chatter. It was hard to miss.

The Wonkette's headline said this: "It Is Cute When White People Try to Have Thoughts About Slavery"

And in Gawker: "Foot goes where? In mouth. In mouth, sir."

Several professors from Emory University's history and African-American studies departments spent hours over the weekend refining a letter of their own to Wagner. That letter, along with an editorial is slated to be published in the school's newspaper, The Emory Wheel, early Tuesday.

"The use of the Three-Fifths Compromise for any reason is unacceptable because, regardless of the context of the compromise, African-Americans see it simply as looking at black people as less than a human being," said Leroy Davis, one of the professors who helped pen the letter.

"We felt it was necessary to point this out," he said.

He said the letter, however, does not call on Wagner to step down, like some had done on Twitter.

"I honestly believe he did not recognize how insensitive that compromise was to many people," Davis said.

In his original column, Wagner held up the three-fifths compromise as a shining example of working together.

"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."

Wagner recognized his folly and said this in his apology about the deal reached by the writers of the Constitution:

"The point was not that this particular compromise was a good thing in itself. It was a repugnant compromise. Of course it is not good to count one human being as three-fifths of another or, more egregiously, as not human at all, but property. Rather, the first point of the essay was that the Constitution had to be a deeply compromised document in order to be adopted at all. If something is compromised it is inherently weak, unstable. In the Constitution’s case, that weakness resulted in ongoing struggles over slavery and, eventually, civil war. In the long run, critical amendments have helped resolve some of the document’s weaknesses and instabilities. We are still working at it."

Post-doctoral fellow Erich Nunn, who is teaching a class on race and music this semester, said Wagner's comments were "jaw-dropping, a parody."

He found it ironic that Wagner's faux-pas came as part of a column that Nunn called an "obtuse" effort to defend cuts in liberal arts funding.

"After my initial response I thought it was revealing," Nunn said. "It demonstrates the necessity of the liberal arts."

That no one associated with the production of Emory Magazine questioned Wagner's column was disturbing to Nunn.

"A real lack of critical thinking has been revealed by this whole debacle," he said. He plans to discuss the matter with students when class resumes Tuesday, make it a teachable moment.

The outrage over Wagner's comments came as Emory announced its commencement speaker this year - none other than Rita Dove, America's first black poet laureate.

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Filed under: Black in America • History • Race • Who we are
soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. 550 Maranello

    HAHAHA, you've got to be kidding me. Society's freaking doomed. Political correctness has gone too far.

    March 4, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ray

    WOW...the political correctness fascists have really been given a bullhorn with mass media and the internet. God forbid ANYONE be offended by ANYTHING! Grow some cohones, people, and stop being such a bunch of whiners.

    February 27, 2013 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. JC

    The most disgusting part about this is that anyone was offended at all. Referencing history should never be a reason to berate anyone. If the negotiated agreement itself is what bothers you, then fine, but to say "he referenced this, so he must have meant that" is incredibly ignorant. You cannot be offended unless you allow something to offend you. To be offensive the desire to offend must be present. Being offended at something that was never intended, and you all know what the intent was, to be offensive is a demonstration in hate ethics. Of all the educated ppl that responses negatively, I am absolutely shocked. But what's new. Jumping down the throat of a white man for non-racist words is an everyday occurance. Obviously even the most educated still can't decider between what is racist and what is not. Glad to see that ignorance is still going strong. Maybe if you try harder, next time you can destroy this guys life entirely. How awesome for you would it be to exact your made up revenge by getting him fired and excommunicated from his field?!

    February 24, 2013 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
  4. NHC

    So I think it's important to note...during this time,

    The NORTH wanted 0/5 slaves represented and the SOUTH wanted 5/5 slaves represented. NOT the other way around. They compromised with a 3/5 and became more united as a result.

    BEFORE this compromise, NO slaves were represented. It went from NONE to 3/5. which is a GOOD START IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION during this time period. OF COURSE 5/5 is best, but you don't suddenly get amazing results without taking some smaller steps in between!! It DOES NOT mean those smaller steps are what is desired as a FINAL result. The point is that we need to start compromising TOWARDS the right direction. Otherwise, we might not even move forward at all.

    February 21, 2013 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. Brownmarq11

    Dr. Wagner’s statement was an example of a political fact that occurred. I am a black female, Emory alum who has two daughters are also Emory alums and we not at all offended by the article and the example that Dr. Wagner used. Please do not use as a spokesperson for black American the white female Emory faculty member. Using her is more offensive than the example stated by the President. I can well able to speak for myself and she was wrong, not Dr. Wagner.

    February 21, 2013 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. Bayou_Disqus

    I am stunned.. Why apologize for accurately describing history? Whether you agree with the outcome or not (nobody today would), the 3/5 compromise was a masterpiece of pragmatism for the sake of national unity. Without it, the 13 colonies might have gone their separate ways and formed regional confederations instead of the USA. We can not change history; arguing over this compromise as if it's a bill in Congress today is ludicrous.

    February 20, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tom

    He stated a fact of American History to illustrate a point, no harm no foul!! Nobody ever said history was all good there are bad things that have happen and both will continue to happen to shape our nation. So why rip a person down for speaking the truth and using his 1st amendment right to do so. 3/5 was a compromise that was made in our government a fact that unfortunately cannot be disputed!!

    February 19, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Chris L

    neither side of my family got here until the early 1900s, so we had no part in slavery. but when black people look at the color of my skin and blame my family for slavery based on what i look like, without knowing my family history, do you know what that is called?

    Yep. Racism. Not just for white people anymore.

    February 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • SomeName

      Things will improve now that you've announced your victimhood.

      February 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Chris L

    It's also super cute when liberals or African Americans try to call white people out for talking about slavery. Unless you are some sort of omnipotent time lord...YOU WEREN'T THERE EITHER!!! What makes your opinion more valid than anyone else's?

    February 19, 2013 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    • cw

      It's also super cute when conservatives try to call liberals out for talking about gun control. Unless you are some sort of omnipotent time lord...YOU WEREN'T THERE EITHER!!! What makes your opinion more valid than anyone else's? See how that works?

      February 19, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
      • jrh0

        slavery is attached to a time period. Gun control is not, thus you can't "have been there". Gun control is also not divided among party lines in the way slavery is divided among racial lines. Point is, your reply makes zero logical sense.

        March 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      The White society is not talking about slavery they noted how the 3/5's rule was apprporiate. Just as Blacks thought slavery was an intention of a white society and they still like it, or it would not be making the news with reports of states finally abolishing slavery and presidents of Universities writing abaout slavery and it's compromise in society. Lets have White slavery for 400 years and see how that fits your history lessons.

      February 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
      • jerseyguy36

        OK but sticking with the subject, in your mind, which would have been a better solution: 1/5. 2/5, 3/5, 4/5 or 5/5?

        Better for the Slaves
        Better for the slave owners
        Better for the Slave States
        Better for the Northern States

        The starting point was 0/0 for the South and 1/1 for the North.

        Now Why?

        February 24, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dialogue

    The Emory president was insensitive and the 3/5 compromise wasn't America's finest moment. But, say, now that we are having an open dialogue on race and socially acceptable behavior, I'm kind of offended by all the murders, robberies, rapes, and car burglaries that occur downtown.

    February 19, 2013 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • George

      Not sure about all the "rapes" downtown, but the robberies, burglaries, and murders sure are a problem. Of course, since those crimes happen everywhere, including in North Dakota and Wyoming, I think it's a conversation for all of us to have. Do some research and I'll do the same, and we can get to the bottom of this issue using data and statistics. We can overcome crime! (Sarcasm should be noted.)

      February 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fail Burton

      Not being a fine moment is the whole point. Nevertheless it had to be dealt with.

      February 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. empresstrudy

    New Hampshire didn't give Jews the vote until 1876

    February 19, 2013 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
  12. jim

    People do not want an honest opinion or the truth they want PC regurgatated down there pie holes

    February 19, 2013 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. Fail Burton

    This shows you how stupid the professors at Emory are. The 3/5 Compromise acted to forbid the South to use 5/5 of its slaves to be counted as free citizens when it came to the Southern states sending representatives to Washington. The compromise, in lieu of a secession and perhaps Civil War, was that the South would be allowed to only count 60% of its slaves towards representation. It had absolutely nothing to do with saying blacks were 3/5 human.

    February 19, 2013 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |
  14. Fail Burton

    This is typical politically correct idiocy. No way this guy should be apologizing for anything. We can't say the 3/5 COMPROMISE was a COMPROMISE? And that COMPROMISES, in this case anti-slavery, have value, or that the compromise had value that eroded the political power of the South? Idiots, wake up.

    February 19, 2013 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
  15. Alan

    The 3/5 Compromise did not mean slaves were worth 3/5 of a non slave.

    The Southern representatives wanted to count all the slaves for representation purposes. The anti slavery representatives did not want slaves to count at all, or at a lower ration than 3/5 at any rate.

    The more slaves counted, especially because they could not vote, the more the power of the white population in the South and over national issues.

    February 19, 2013 at 5:57 am | Report abuse |
  16. Waswa Hassan

    I see nothing wrong with the example he gave. That's what happened, thats the truth. Thats the history. In fact, we need alot more about what happened with slavery. otherwise we may never imagine what it was like...

    February 19, 2013 at 2:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      "Now that Mississippi has finally ratified the 13th Amendment, which means slavery is now offically over in America. We now need to ratify another amendment to free the minds of those that still see us as good for nothing but slavery."
      T. Allen Stringer 2/19/13 3:55am

      February 19, 2013 at 5:19 am | Report abuse |
  17. snj

    And once again, my alma mater makes the news headlines for reasons not at all positive. Fruedian slip to the max. President Wagner should have known better. Case closed.

    February 19, 2013 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Lee Warren

      What heck............Wagner must be a conservative to get this kind of flak.

      February 19, 2013 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
    • SomeName

      You might wanna look up the definition of "Freudian slip." He didn't accidentally say butter instead of bread. The guy published an entire opinion piece on the topic.

      February 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Mike

    people were "offended" this "offended" is as serious when the UN says another nation is "a threat to a safe world." Next! Bunch of pansies finding reasons to whine over nothing.

    February 18, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Justin

    False, Ad hominem.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Richintexas

    blah blah blah , blah blah blah.....does anyone (with a brain) give a hoot about this???? I feel for that guy, although I'd bet he's as liberal as they come, so to him I say – welcome to the world you created, sir!

    February 18, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • snj

      That's a rather lazy, insensitive, ignorant way of looking at this issue, richintexas.

      February 19, 2013 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  21. Matthew

    Only in touchy-feely, instant-outrage, I-have-the-right-never-to-be-offended-by-anything-anywhere-at-any-time modern America would a sober article that referenced a major factual event in American history somehow be considered evidence that the 21st century author of said article supports slavery.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Bubba

    Where is my post?

    February 18, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Abe

      Right above this reply.

      March 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Bubba

    Nothing in his original comment was racist at all. He cited a major compromise during the dealing of the Consitiution which was make or break between the South and the North. Other than the Bill of Rights, it was the most important compromise to get the Constitution ratified. Yes, anything to do with slavery was immoral, but his comment did not invoke racist ideas at all. Only people who viewed it through racial undertones saw it as racist. That is wrong with society today. Everything has to be PC not to offend anyone. Sorry but history does offend people from time to time. Doesn't mean we can't talk about them. Do we strike all history which offends a race of people? Then most history would be gone. No Holocost, no slavery, any history concerning the wiping out of Native Americans, etc. If all of this was striken, then we are doomed to repeat it.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris L

      The people most offended by history are those who are usually on the losing end of it.

      February 19, 2013 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
      • what?

        Like the black population in America

        February 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
      • Chris L

        The Black population, the Native Americans, the South, the poor.

        I think its racist that I have to apologize for things white people who aren't even my ancestors did generations ago.

        February 19, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
      • ColoradoDad

        I suppose Chris you have a lot of guilt? Being native my self I could really care less about you and your apologies or lack there of. In fact, I don't need it. But to turn blind ignorance to the fact that, as I said in a previous comment to you, the whole sale genocide and racism of the past still affects minorities of today is ludicrous. We don't want your apology, and I'm more than willing to tell you where to put that apology. But to have people like you claiming that those atrocities of the not so distant past no longer affect our positions in life is offensive and just plain ignorant. But I'd be the first person to admit that the only way you will understand is if you and your people are enslaved and put through genocidal treatment for several centuries. I can say with sincerity that I hope your nor anyone else ever have to endure that kind of pain.

        February 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Diana

    I am getting so sick of our LACK OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Do we not mention slavery and pretend it never happened? Or do we state facts? Why should anyone have to apologize for stating their thoughts, it's getting to be outrageous. Look how the blacks have their own music awards? If whites did that, it would be called racism. It's only the whites who can't do that, but the blacks can, ohhhh, It's time we stopped apologizing for facts and our thought we have about history. Let the blacks grow up, it's about time. Let them stay in school, didn't M.L. King fight for that and die for that? Yet they only quote him when it's to their advantage, not something they practice.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • snj

      Wow...I can see all of the logical fallacies, false claims of reverse racism/discrimination and general anti-black sentiment in your post. It is this nonsense that you spew (and many others) that keeps the topic of racial tension in this country a poorly-understood issue.

      February 19, 2013 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • ColoradoDad

      Country music awards?? 🙂 You fail to recognize that whites don't need the things you mention, society is based around you. everyday life is presented in your image. In fact, picture the "typical" American family, what do you see. Yes this is changing, especially today. But until the "image" of what being American is, changes. Minorities will need representation where there is none. I for one have no issue with whites having their own areas of focus, as long as the white robes and burning crosses don't start coming through, I could care less.

      February 22, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  25. JohnParryJones

    He did nothing more than state a fact. Facts sometimes offend. Free speech. Get over it. Move on.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  26. ljjm

    Great compromise unless you were a slave.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • peakprofit

      That is really completely untrue. The 'three fifths' was a means to try to establish representation. It had absolutely zero impact on the day to day life of a recently freed slave. Had this specific measure not been adopted, one of two things would have: either the northern states would not have accepted the Constitution at all, or there would have been some other means devised to establish representation.

      There is no doubt that freed slaves were mistreated long after the Civil War. There are still racist overtones to elections this very day. But this specific action did not deny any individual and specific right. It did not impact their day to day lives. It merely set rules for counting the electorate. Not dissimilar things happen today, when college students or military are not allowed to vote in thee region in which they are currently sleeping, because one side feels that it would give a disproportionate skew to the local population.

      The point that Wagner made is actually precisely correct. People are offended only if they want to be, and because they do not care enough about the history of their own people to take a moment to actually read a history book.

      February 18, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
      • guinco

        What in the hell are you talking about? The three-fifths compromise was negotiated in 1787. There weren't a whole lot of "recently freed slaves" then. There were a hell of a lot of slaves, though.

        February 18, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Adam

    "Teachable moment" is a patronizing phrase. I wish it would die.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cain

      I might agree...but its well-deserved in this case, wouldnt you say?

      February 18, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
      • Matthew

        What do you consider "teachable" about this incident? The only thing I can think of is that it's apparently no longer ok to mention factual, objective events that have taken place in American history, lest somebody somewhere go from zero to outraged faster than a speeding train.

        February 18, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
      • SomeName

        Mathew, it was an opinion piece that went beyond stating objective facts. He held it up as a good example of compromise, when in fact, what was agreed to was something that should never be subject to compromise.

        February 23, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |