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Statement Over 'Three-Fifths' Creates Full Controversy


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. The head of one of the South's historic universities has inadvertently set off a firestorm. James Wagner, president of Emory University in Atlanta, cited the three-fifths compromise of the U.S. Constitution as a positive example of political compromise. Passed in 1787, the three-fifths compromise decreed that slaves counted as three-fifths of a person when it came to determining the population of the states. Emory history professor Leslie Harris calls it the Constitution's fatal flaw. She joined me yesterday from member station WABE in Atlanta where she explained why.

LESLIE HARRIS: Southerners were trying to protect their slaveholding status. They were concerned that the North, which had begun to end slavery, would outvote them and eventually end slavery in the South as well. Northerners didn't want Southerners to count slaves as part of their population because then they would outnumber the Northerners. And so the compromise that the North and the South made was to count the enslaved population at three-fifths rather than whole.

So, by keeping slavery in the Constitution, by protecting slavery through the three-fifths compromise, in fact, we held onto slavery, which ultimately led us into civil war with the bloodiest loss of life. So, it was not a successful governmental compromise in that sense.

GONYEA: Let's talk about this article, written by Emory's president, James Wagner. It appeared in the Emory University alumni magazine. It hit the presses. You read it. What was your reaction?

HARRIS: My first response was that it was a misreading of the three-fifths compromise and of what a successful compromise could be. In addition to the sort of strict historical interpretation of that compromise, the way that popular culture, and particularly African-Americans- see that compromise is that it is a way of counting African-Americans as three-fifths of a person, three-fifths of a human being. So, I knew that even if the historical interpretation of popular culture was wrong, it would strike a very bad chord among African-Americans and among others. I mean, I want to emphasize that this is something that is not an idea that's simply bound by race. But I knew that in terms of African-Americans, it would be particularly striking that he use that as an example of compromise.

GONYEA: Describe the reaction you saw once the article hit.

HARRIS: Well, for about two weeks, there was nothing, and then, I think, the piece sent things out over the Internet. And Saturday, when that piece appeared, I had five emails. And people, friends - both historians at other institutions, folks at Emory - were very disturbed by this article.

And so, as an historian, several of us in the history department at Emory and in African-American studies, knew that we wanted to write a statement of, a formal public statement of why this was a disturbing example to use. The other thing is that, I think I would point out, that this example, it's based on an idea of democracy that we don't really hold today. So, the way the three-fifths compromise got built was that a group of white men went into a building and decided what the rest of the nation would have to deal with in terms of the Constitution. like, not only for enslaved people but for women, for African-Americans, for Native Americans who were still heart of the U.S. at that point. And so, that's not really the way we think about governance today or democracy.

GONYEA: We should note here President Wagner has issued an apology for the article. But has the controversy started to die down yet on campus?

HARRIS: I think not quite yet. I mean, there are often these apologies that are issued and I think President Wagner is quite genuine in his apology. And at the same time, the question becomes how do we as a community at Emory understand how we are to move forward as an institution?

GONYEA: Feels like the kind of moment that will be a touchstone for a long time to come.

HARRIS: I hope in a positive way. I think it's opened up some conversations that we've needed to have.

GONYEA: Leslie Harris is an associate professor of history in African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Professor Harris, thank you very much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.