Emory’s President Sparks a Furor With a Comment on Compromise

James W. Wagner, president of Emory University, drew a firestorm of criticism this weekend on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere online over an alumni-magazine column in which he appeared to endorse the racially charged “Three-Fifths Compromise” of the U.S. Constitution.

The compromise, which was later rendered moot by the 14th Amendment, is in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution. It states that, for federal purposes, a state’s population is to be calculated as the sum of “the whole Number of free Persons,” excluding Indians, plus “three fifths of all other Persons.”

Mr. Wagner’s column, about ideological polarization in Congress and the pledges some candidates make never to compromise, held up the founding fathers’ agreement on the Three-Fifths Compromise as an example of political leaders’ bending on principle in order to reach a greater goal. “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,” he wrote. “Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.”

The deluge of denunciations that followed included calls for donors to shun Emory and even for Mr. Wagner to resign. Some noted Emory’s historical connections to slavery, while others lamented a corporate culture in academe, in which university presidents are valued more for expertise in cutting costs and raising money than for intellectual leadership.

On Sunday, Mr. Wagner added a lengthy apology and an explanation at the top of his column. “Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman,” he wrote. “I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”

Return to Top