James Wagner has found himself in a familiar position and he has dealt with it in the familiar fashion. Speaking as the president of Emory University, he praised one of the constitutional compromises with slavery. Writing in the university’s alumni magazine, Wagner cited the provision counting slaves as three-fifths of the population that determined congressional representation (and electoral votes in presidential elections) as a compromise that should inspire today’s gridlocked American politics. Wagner’s comments have touched off an unedifying fury.
In substance, Wagner’s point was certainly defensible. There were no circumstances under which slavery was going to be abolished on a federal or national basis. There would have been no Constitution without its compromises with slavery, but the compromises were just that. They ceded ground to the defenders of slavery, but also gave ground to the opponents of slavery. One provision allowed Congress to cut off the slave trade after twenty years. The three-fifths clause not only enhanced the representation of slave states, it also limited it.
Even in the noxious fugitive-slave clause, as elsewhere in the Constitution, the use of the term “slavery” and a recognition of its legality beyond a particular state’s law were avoided. It left the states free to abolish slavery and it left Congress free to regulate interstate commerce in slaves, as Thomas West points out in the invaluable Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America and the related online document library. Professor West quotes the great American historian Bernard Bailyn:
To note only that certain leaders of the Revolution continued to enjoy the profits of so savage an institution and in their reforms failed to obliterate it inverts the proportions of the story. What is significant in the historical context of the time is not that the liberty-loving Revolutionaries allowed slavery to survive, but that they–even those who profited directly from the institution–went so far in condemning it, confining it, and setting in motion the forces that would ultimately destroy it….A successful and liberty-loving republic might someday destroy the slavery that it had been obliged to tolerate at the start; a weak and fragmented nation would never be able to do so.
On most college campuses, however, Wagner’s comments cannot be defended, and Wagner has not even tried. In response to the outrage that has greeted his article, Wagner has performed the ritual self-abasement necessary to such occasions on college campuses:
Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. 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.
Mark Tooley relates the sequel:
Not everyone was mollified. The 200 faculty of Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences voted to censure him. There was a demonstration against him. The New York Times and The Washington Post have published articles. NPR aired a story. The Times quoted one Emory history professor: “The three-fifths compromise is one of the greatest failed compromises in U.S. history,” she said. “Its goal was to keep the union together, but the Civil War broke out anyway.”
Robert Weissberg comments:
Wagner’s apology, “To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me,” closely resembles a Soviet-era show trial where the already guilty defendant tries to save himself with a self-humiliating confession.
Alas, this self-degradation is apparently insufficient and the College of Arts and Sciences faculty has formally censured president Wagner. Perhaps like Soviet show trial victims, he should immediately confess even more grievous sins so the faculty will spare his family.
As you can probably tell, Weissberg is a hard case:
Wagner’s travails strike a personal note: In some twenty years of teaching the Introduction to American Government course at the University of Illinois-Urbana I have often made the identical argument, that the three-fifths compromise was a brilliant political compromise to solve a grave political problem. I made that point in front of as many as 1400 students including many African American students (and who knows how many apprentice PC commissars). I informed them that the compromise was about representation of the states—the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives—and in principle had nothing to do with slavery per se. I explained that anti-slavery New England delegates wanted slaves to count as zero for purposes of representation, while Southern delegates pressed to have each counted as a full person. Without these artful compromises, I said, both the slave states and New England would have left the Union.
And that wasn’t the end of my heresies. My lectures also explained how the Founders cleverly finessed the slavery issues with multiple compromises, including that the word “slave” never appeared in the Constitution.
Weissberg offers valuable advice premised on the intellectual climate on campus:
First and foremost, never assume that historical accuracy is any defense. Constitutional history isn’t my specialty, but I have some familiarity with the topic and I have never seen any scholarly treatment of the three-fifths compromise assert that it demeaned African Americans.
Yes, everybody agrees that while many Founders had a low opinion of slaves, others believed that slavery was a horrible wrong, but the consensus was that all these slave-related constitutional compromises were unavoidable adjustments to an unpleasant political reality if the Union was to survive. Only the most strident ideologue would insist that the Constitutional Convention could have abolished slavery and still kept the Union.
None of that matters to people who are looking for an excuse to attack because you have supposedly offended them.
It is far safer to assume that many of today’s hyper-sensitive academics will retrofit current trendy ideology so that they can manufacture a case against you. For example, the Founders are described as just another gang of rich white males anxious to silence impoverished people of color. Defend anything they did and you will find yourself in boiling water. And it only compounds one’s sins to rebut this retrofitting.
Second, always presume that PC enthusiasts are perpetually on the lookout for some offense, real or imagined, to keep the flame alive.
Without regular outrage, the movement wilts and so organizational vitality (and personal sense of moral virtue, for that matter) requires endless hunting and gathering. Witness how rage hardly ends when, for example, an alleged hate crime is exposed as a hoax or a supposed rape victim recants her story. It’s only a matter of time before the next campus uproar occurs and the target may be perfectly innocent—in the wrong place at the wrong time, as they say with crime.
Tellingly, even an unblemished history of political correctness will not guarantee immunity. The slightest slip of the tongue, an “inappropriate” laugh, even in a private e-mail or a Facebook posting, can energize those whose very existence requires the 24/7 battle for their vision of cosmic justice.
Several years ago, the impeccably politically correct president of Rutgers let it slip that black affirmative action enrollees had lower SAT scores than regular admittees and he suggested that some part of the difference might be genetic. All hell broke loose, including the disruption of a college basketball game, despite the president’s stellar public record of helping African American students. Think the old Soviet Empire where even a harmless joke by some dutiful apparatchik could be a one-way ticket to the gulag. Our PC Inquisition operates the same way.
Let’s ask the Leninist question: what is to be done? Tooley suggests more “finesse.” In the spirit of inquiry, Weissberg consider the possibilities:
Forget about trying Calvin Coolidge-style silence. Most academics cannot stop talking.
A second possibility is to fervently embrace the orthodoxy even if you don’t really believe it. Alas, not everybody can fake sincerity all the time and even then, accidents happen, as in the case of Rutgers’ president.
Here’s my solution: Administrators should study the press conferences of President Eisenhower and learn the art of confusing garble. Remember that Ike was a general who knew that loose lips sink ships, so he mastered the art of speaking in public without saying anything. I recall those briefings and how post-conference commentators would try to figure out what Ike really said, might have said, or didn’t say. Academics might find safety in Ike’s stealthy speaking tactics.
One of the true joys of the academy is brilliant conversation, speaking “in clear” (i.e., without encryption). But, as Emory’s hapless president will attest, this has become too risky.
Still, take heart—obscurantism may return the university to the Dark Ages, when potentially heretical views were expressed in convoluted Latin. Did I say “Dark Ages”? Sorry about that—I really meant Tenebrosi Ages.
Weissberg is on the right track, but he leaves us hanging. What is really needed is advice on how to communicate one’s thoughts under the illiberal and indeed tyrannical conditions that prevail on college campuses. Suggested reading: Persecution and the Art of Writing, by Leo Strauss. One must learn to speak ironically, conveying one’s true thoughts between the lines. A footnote for college presidents on campuses such as Emory’s: if you can absorb Strauss’s teaching, you must be sure never to mention his name or his writings.
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