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.

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.