Emory’s slave history: One step forward, three-fifths of a step back?

Among the many institutions tainted by historical association with slavery are a number of universities, including Emory. This is clear from the historical record; both the University itself and many of its employees used slave labor, while the school also served as a focal point for important intellectual defenses of slavery.

In recent years, the University has taken steps to recognize and take responsibility for this history and move forward in positive ways. The school issued an official statement of regret for its involvement in slavery; launched the Transforming Community Project; and held a fantastic conference on Slavery and the University which focused on groundbreaking work from Mark Auslander, Al Brophy, and other scholars. (Full disclosure: I was a speaker at this event.)

All in all, Emory has been moving in a very positive direction over the past few years. Which makes the latest column from University President James Wagner such a head-scratcher.

In his column, Wagner goes out of his way to praise the Three-Fifths Clause:

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.

This is a stunning take on deeply problematic history. The Three-Fifths Clause was indeed a compromise — a compromise which contributed to the systematic abuse and disempowerment of millions of innocent people. One suspects that the people enslaved at the time might have less favorable views on the virtue of such a compromise. I hope that the column is an inadvertent misstep, and that Wagner clarifies. It is extremely troubling to see a university with historical slave ties loudly praising a political act that advanced the cause of slavery in America.

(As a side note, the press reports appear to reflect a common misunderstanding of the Three-Fifths Clause, writing for instance that it “legally represented slaves as less than a person.” This completely misrepresents the effects of the clause. As I have written in some detail in this space, the Three-Fifths Clause did _not_ reduce the substantive rights of slaves (which were governed by state law in any case). Rather, it gave extra representation to slave states. Don’t think of it as “three fifths of a person” directed at slaves; think of it as “three fifths of a bonus vote for slaveholders.”)

You may also like...

27 Responses

  1. Horspool says:

    The 1789 US Constitution is a very tightly drafted document. It contains almost no surplusage or redundancy. Do you know which one substantive provision is specified twice, indicating that it was likely of great importance to the drafters?

    The apportionment of Federal direct taxes by State population, in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 and again in Article I, Section 9, Clause 4.

    “So what?” you ask. Well, you brought up the Three-Fifths clause!

    That compromise was more than a despicable agreement to give slaveholders extra, undeserved political power.

    It was necessitated by the fact that at the time of the drafting, the only feasible way to assess the economic capacity of each State in a reasonably fair manner was by population. This was shortly before the Industrial Revolution made other measures (e.g., of industrial capital) more appropriate and before King Cotton ruled the South– in 1789 with most labor about equally productive, population really was a fair proxy for economic strength. Also, it could be measured by a simple nosecount in an era which couldn’t process more extensive statistics.

    Both North and South agreed to apportion direct taxes by population as a simple and fair proxy for ability-to-pay. At first glance, it seemed to many that seats in the House should be allocated the same way, since that would align votes with dollars, critical to maintaining democracy. There was a fly in the ointment. The North wanted to tax Southern productive power as well as Northern, but didn’t want to give the South a huge slew of “rotten borough” Congressional districts populated mainly by non-voting slaves– that would give each Southern voter much more influence in Congress than each Northern voter, and everyone agreed that would be destructive. On the other hand, if Southerners were given Representatives only in proportion to their voting numbers but then taxed in proportion to population including slaves, they would soon find themselves paying much heavier taxes per citizen than Northerners, a fate Southerners were reluctant to embrace.

    The Three-Fifths compromise conceded something to each side. The South paid more taxes on a per-citizen basis than the North, but less on a population basis. And both North and South got House seats in proportion to their liability for taxes, upholding the democratic principle that voters should not be ale to impose taxes which fall only on other people.*

    *A principle abandoned in the US a century ago, but that’s another story.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    No, the 3/5ths compromise did NOT give extra representation to slave states. In the absence of the compromise, just leave it out, and leave everything else the same, the default would have been 5/5ths representation.

    Just like non-voting women were represented at 5/5ths.

    Just like non-voting children were represented at 5/5ths.

    Just like, today, non-voting felons are represented at 5/5ths.

    The preferred outcome for opponents of slavery would have been 0/5ths, this is true. This is what makes 3/5ths a “compromise”. But it’s not what you would have had in the absence of the clause, so your claim is, simply, unambiguously, wrong.

    Slavery was a legal institution under the Constitution, and that’s bad enough. But the only direct acknowledgements of slavery in the Constitution were a reduction in representation of slave states, and a statement that after a relatively close date importation of slaves could be banned. Don’t pretend the document was worse than it was.

  3. Shag from Brookline says:

    For the slave states, it was more political power and principal rather than principle.

    Query:Does Horspool have data showing that the South ACTUALLY paid more taxes …?

    And can we expect Horspool to give us a “Calhoun” about how beneficial slavery was to the slaves?

  4. Shag from Brookline says:

    I think Brett has had too many fifths as he provides us with another “Calhoun.” Was the 3/5ths rule for the benefit of the slaves? Were the slaves treated better as a result of the 3/5ths rule, like better food, shelter and clothing … and education? Yes, with the benefit of hindsight the Constitution could have been worse if Dred Scott v. Sandford had come down much earlier after the document’s adoption. But to focus on the document being less bad than it could have been says what?

    Oh, those troubling changing demographics that got Sen. Lindsey Graham (Cracker, S. Car.) – and Brett – so upset. Now what was it the Red Queen said? [Just Google.]

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    Shag, I know you think the Earth would spin off it’s axis if you ever admitted I had a point, but the fact remains: There are all sorts of categories of people who lack the vote, and are none the less, in the absence of a special clause in the Constitution, represented at a rate of 5/5ths. There were more such at the time of the founding, MOST people didn’t have the vote. The default rule was that you got ‘represented’ regardless of your status.

    Wenger is simply, unambiguously wrong about the 3/5ths clause *increasing* the representation of slave states. It reduced it, by 2/5ths of the slave population. Without any special clause addressing the issue, slave states would have had more representation in Congress.

    This is not a matter of interpretation. He’s just flat out wrong.

  6. LR says:

    Presumably, non-voting women and children were distributed equally across the North and South. The slave population was not. So counting the slave population for representation purposes would have given an advantage to the South in a way counting the other non-voting populations did not.

  7. Joe says:

    Brett has a point & I have gone back/forth with others here and elsewhere on it.

    It was a ‘pragmatic’ half-victory. But, in part because the whole topic is poisonous, it was an ill-advised example to use. The two senator rule for me would be a better one — Madison opposed that but accepted it for the sake of compromise.

    As to the last point, ultimately, the 3/5 Compromise furthered the sentiment that slaves (and indirectly at least, blacks overall — Dred Scott v. Sanford a central case where the two were mixed together) were not equal to non-slaves, even though (like non-voting women) they were constitutionally “persons.” As to a comment, the provision dealt with direct taxes, which never was a major source of federal revenue in antebellum times.

  8. Joe says:

    *A principle abandoned in the US a century ago, but that’s another story.

    Is this a reference to the 16A? The provision as noted set forth a rule for direct taxes, specifically on land and persons directly. The main concern, see Hylton v. U.S., was thinly populated states with a lot of land and taxes on slaves.

    This didn’t stop passage of taxes that “fall only on other people.” In fact, it left open taxes that led to much dissent that did just that, such as tariffs that fell on certain states and people more than others.

    An income tax sets forth a tax based on income. Not “other people,” income. Income taxes were allowed before the 16A; a certain type had to follow the apportionment rule, that’s it.

  9. Joe says:

    Thanks Dr. Meyer.

    “the first point of the essay was that the Constitution had to be a deeply compromised document in order to be adopted at all”

    I understood this to be his purpose too but when professors (see also, Prof. Erik Loomis, a labor scholar) find the example offensive, it is likely quite a few will, even if they do so by misunderstanding his point. Pragmatically, at least, it was a poor example.

  10. Shag from Brookline says:

    I wonder if from the chattel slaves’ perspective, they considered their “class” as 3/5ths full or 3/5ths empty? Maybe Brett after imbibing in another “Calhoun” accompanied with a fifth or two can put himself, in an originalism sense, in the bare feet of a slave with an answer.

    As to Brett in #2:

    ” … and a statement that after a relatively close date importation of slaves could be banned”

    from an economic standpoint slaveowners would benefit from such banning as a result of chattel slave breeding increasing the value of slaveowners’ chattel slaves without “flooding the market” with imports.

    Maybe Brett might study Calhoun a little closer, especially on economics of slavery.

  11. Brett Bellmore says:

    I can’t see why a chattel slave would be bothered that his owner didn’t get as much representation in Congress. It’s not as though the slaves themselves had any opportunity to vote, or the clause had any direct effect on them at all.

    Shag, and if the Constitution hadn’t allowed the importation to be banned, that would also be held as a strike against it; This is a game the Constitution isn’t allowed to win, anything but proceeding directly to banning slavery, (And thus not HAVING a constitution, because the slave states wouldn’t have ratified.) is seen as bad.

    That’s the kind of reasoning you get when you assume that, since you’re entitled to the complete win, anything short of utter, immediate victory is a win for the other side.

  12. Shag from Brookline says:

    I shall try to be careful in not confusing Mr. Wenger with Pres. Wagner with my poor but improving eyesight.

    Pres. Wagner’s original column did not explicitly (or even implicitly?) deal with “Emory’s slave history” as did Mr. Wenger’s post here. But I agree with Joe that Pres. Wagner used a poor example; and I applaud Pres. Wagner’s response to a criticism that Dr. Meyer provided a link to.

    If in Pres. Wagner’s Original Column on matters of possible compromises that Emory may have to address, one of those matters relates to “Emory’s slave history,” I trust that the “we” at Emory referenced by Pres. Wagner includes African-Americans (and other minorities) whose slave ancestors were not included in “We, the People” who compromised with the 3/5ths clause.

    I trust that Emory will continue to progress in a more positive direction as noted by Mr. Wenger.

  13. Shag from Brookline says:

    If Brett has studied the economics of slavery, he would be aware that the import ban provision in the Constitution did not result in a cessation of importation of slaves – although there may have been decreases in such importation. Keep in mind that the issue of territories was not “settled” by 1808. And consider what happened with the Missouri Compromise in the early 1850s, a prelude to Dred Scott and – surprise, surprise! – the Civil War!

    And Brett’s closing on # 12:

    “That’s the kind of reasoning you get when you assume that, since you’re entitled to the complete win, anything short of utter, immediate victory is a win for the other side.”

    demon-strates how he looks upon slavery issues that led to the Reconstruction Amendments as a zero-sum game even in this day and age. I’m not entitled to “the complete win” but basic humanity is; and the “win” is not complete so long as Sen. Lindsey Graham (Cracker, S. Car.) apparently seeks to increase the anger of angry white men whose procreation cannot match the changing demographics and who apparently cannot accept the Reconstruction Amendments (except for incorporation of the Second Amendment).

    And consider the callousness of this by Brett in #12:

    “I can’t see why a chattel slave would be bothered that his owner didn’t get as much representation in Congress. It’s not as though the slaves themselves had any opportunity to vote, or the clause had any direct effect on them at all.”

    That’s Brett walking in the bare feet of a slave, who can’t bothered … ?

  14. Piper says:

    “…the many institutions tainted by historical association with slavery…”

    So, that would be nearly all institutions in all countries founded before 1800,* right?

    But forget about non-American institutions, like those of Europe nurtured on profits of imperialism powered by slave labor, just look at Harvard: http://slavery-and-universities.wikispaces.com/Harvard

    150 years is too little time for the stain of funding by slaveowners’ donations and tuition payments to fade!

    *And in Arab countries to the present day: http://frontpagemag.com/2012/dgreenfield/saudi-offers-castrated-african-slave-for-sale-on-facebook/

  15. Shag from Brookline says:

    Piper’s link to Harvard and slavery reminds me that in my research project of the 1850s in the Boston area the law school at Harvard College subsequently renamed Harvard Law School had only a couple, few faculty members at the time who were in support of the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in a major case in Boston involving a Federal commissioner on the faculty who ruled against a fugitive slave. And a significant portion of the students at the law school at the time from slave states supported strongly that ruling. Abolitionist protestors applied political pressures to “punish” that commissioner via the pocketbook. [I think under the act a Federal commissioner would be entitled to a $5 fee is he ruled in favor of the alleged fugitive slave and $10 if he ruled in favor of the slave owner.]

    Sadly, stains remain.

  16. Thanks for the link to the updated column. I’m glad to see the response, and it really addresses the concerns that I had.

    And Brett, I’m with Shag and Joe on this one. The compromise was a bonus vote given to slaveholders, and it was intended in exactly that way.

    Also, Shag in 16, it’s a great example of how the Civil War was _not_ about states rights (as Southern apologists today insist). The South was not interested in protecting Northern states rights to grant liberty to people within their boundaries — Southern politicians insisted on Federal enforcement of fugitive slave laws, trampling the idea of state rights.

    The South occasionally invoked the idea of states rights, but it was always as a pretext. It would be more accurate to say, the South favored states rights when those were aligned with slavery, and favored federal power when that was more aligned with slavery.

  17. Joe says:

    “The compromise was a bonus vote given to slaveholders, and it was intended in exactly that way.”

    Well, as I said, Brett has a point. The Constitution was a compromise & required realistically in 1787 some acceptance of slavery as an institution. To get that “more perfect union,” a good, all those slave states wasn’t going to sign on to something that rejected slavery.

    The 3/5 Compromise gave something to each side. Pointing it out as something that “contributed” to slavery as such is a bit curious. As Brett noted, if it wasn’t there, slavery wouldn’t have been gone. If anything, it would have been helped, since the slave states could have had more representation. In that way, it was a small move against slavery. See also, @2 of the 14A.

    I think it can be said to do this in two ways besides reduction of representation.

    [1] It called slaves (or those obviously referring to them) “persons.” Lincoln noted as much in his Cooper Union speech. Whenever referenced, implicitly each time, slaves were not “property,” but “persons.” Persons have rights. They are counted for representation. Mere property is not.

    [2] Slavery is seen as somewhat inferior. The compromise to my understanding was based on an earlier proposal to apportion taxes. Slaves were seen as likely to be less productive than freemen so should be counted less for this purpose in an economic sense. A freemen — even an alleged “wage slave” type — was thus basically more productive, superior, than slave labor.

    Compromising with evil is sometimes necessary but that’s a pretty harsh example for the purposes of the cited essay. If it was talking about hard choices during a war like allying with the Soviets, maybe, but it wasn’t really appropriate & likely to be taken the wrong way.

  18. Shag from Brookline says:

    Who were the “freemen” who were more productive than slaves? Were they whites or free blacks? If whites, were they competing economically with slaves, and if so how effectively? If freemen were more productive, why the need for slaves? Were slave owners stupid economically? Were freemen picking cotton? [2] in #18 sounds like a “Calhoun.” Is this reflected in Madison’s notes? Is there a suggestion that the non-slave states took the position in [2]? Surely the slave states would have preferred one slave, one vote, but not by the slave.

    As to [1] in #18 on slaves as persons having rights, what were those rights as compared to citizens – or even animals – in the slave states? And how were such rights enforced and by whom? Could a slave enforce those rights? Corporations had more rights as persons than slaves.

    Compromise with evil may sometimes be necessary but let’s not forget the evil – an evil that continued to and after the Civil War. Imagine, a Civil War to get that “more perfect union.”

    Brett’s point assumes that but for the 3/5ths clause the slave states would have had greater representation. But that makes assumptions as to what otherwise may have been discussed at the Convention. The clause came about because of concerns of both slave and non-slave states. As to the use of the word “person,” keep in mind that painstaking steps were taken to avoid the word “slave” and “slavery.” So let’s not put too much emphasis on “person.” And keep in mind Roger Taney in Dred Scott. In practice, did the 3/5ths clause detract from the impact of slavery? Brett makes a pointless point at most, ignoring the realities of the differences between the slave and non-slave states.

  19. Shag from Brookline says:

    BREAKING NEWS! Mississippi Ratifies Slavery Ban After ‘Lincoln'”

    The Deep South may indeed rise again.

  20. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Brett’s point assumes that but for the 3/5ths clause the slave states would have had greater representation.”

    I don’t just assume it, I explain why: The default is that people get represented, and you can point to all sorts of classes of people who weren’t free to vote, or simply not free, who still counted for purposes of representation. Slaves didn’t, in part, only because of that clause.

    Even today, felons can’t vote in many states, but still count. I’m always amazed that nobody challenges that using the 3/5ths clause…

  21. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett doesn’t provide proof that the “default” would have been the rule. The issue was debated.”

    And Brett still hasn’t answered how slaves themselves benefitted from the 3/5ths clause or from his faulty “default” version. But Brett seems intent on looking through the s***pile of the evils of slavery for a kernel that hasn’t been digested. Keep looking, Brett, but wash your hands.

  22. Joe says:

    The felon 3/5 challenge is creative. Not sure how that would work though. Should women have tried that pre-19A too?

    As to Shag … Federalist No. 54 discusses the provision though in advocacy fashion (in effect, stepping in the shoes of the other side). The article notes how the count reflects the diminishing of the “slave” (he is honest enough to use the word) as a person. Later on, the South ridiculed the North with its wage slaves, but each one of these so-called wage slaves were counted in full.

    The reference to an earlier proposal as to apportionment of taxes is found in certain works discussing the 1780s and has some relation to property requirements in voting. You can check, if you wish, if Madison’s notes referenced it.

    The use of “person” — see Frederick Douglas as an example — often had more of a symbolic, advocacy value for actual slaves. The failure to use the word “slave” (cf. Confederate Constitution) does imply a certain discomfort, like most euphemisms. As to rights, one would be the right — unlike a cow — to become free in various instances, including access to court to obtain such freedom.

    Also, if minimal, slaves had some process if court, not simply put down like a troubled horse, even in the case of murder. Slaves were understood to have a will and thus certain rights in that respect. Obviously, limited, but Taney exaggerated the matter in Dred Scott.

  23. Joe says:

    [One example, though there are various historical accounts on slave law, that comes to mind as to the last point involved a failed slave uprising in 1820s SC. A special judicial proceeding was used to try the alleged slave participants. Justice William Johnson felt it was not protective enough but even here, the slaves had minimal protections.

    source: Donald G. Morgan, Justice William Johnson: The First Dissenter]

  24. Shag from Brookline says:

    It’s clear that tables, chairs, cattle, etc, constituted chattels that could be bought and sold. So could slaves. Thus the reference to “chattel slaves.” Yes, one can search and find an occasional case such as Joe describes about rights of slaves, but limited. What percentage of chattel slaves actually were able to access courts in slave states? And courts in slave states could reverse even such limited rights, as was the case of Missouri courts in Dred Scott. What is the benefit of going through that s***pile of the evils of slavery in search of an undigested kernel, or two, or three?

    By the way, one difference between slaves and animals was that slaves could sometimes fight back, more effectively than cattle. And slave owners feared insurrection [reflected in a constitutional provision for the protection of slavery], perhaps resulting in a few minimal rights for very few slaves. Were there a lot of white attorneys [there were very few, if any, black attorneys in slave states] providing pro bono, legal services to enforce the limited rights of slaves? Ivory Soap used to be advertised as 99 and 44/100 % pure. So let me give a little and say that because of limited rights of slaves, slavery was ONLY 99 and 44/100 % impure.

  25. Shag from Brookline says:

    While this post and thread are in the “Older” category at this Blog, it should be noted that the NYTimes Website “Room for Debate” feature currently includes “The Constitution’s Immoral Compromise” triggered by Emory’s Wagner’s comment. There are four (4) participants so far, including Paul Finkelman and Sandy Levinson. No mention has been made of Wagner’s sort of apology for his comment.

  26. AYY says:

    “The Three-Fifths Clause was indeed a compromise — a compromise which contributed to the systematic abuse and disempowerment of millions of innocent people.”

    Huh? How did it do that? Slavery would have existed irrespective of the compromise.

    “One suspects that the people enslaved at the time might have less favorable views on the virtue of such a compromise.”

    One does? Why would they have cared any more than anyone else whether the compromise was 5/5 or 1/5th?

    “It is extremely troubling to see a university with historical slave ties loudly praising a political act that advanced the cause of slavery in America.”

    The historical ties were many generations ago. How did the political act advance the cause of slavery? One suspects that if there hadn’t been a compromise the cause of slavery could have been the same.