Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Good Things, Bad Things, the Constitution, and the 3/5th Compromise

Ben Alpers nails it.  In the wake of Emory University President James Wagner's column presenting the Constitution's three-fifths compromise as a good thing (and his subsequent apology), Alpers, writing at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, discusses the three-fifths clause as it relates to the way Americans understand the Constitution today.  Here is a taste:

Of course, to elaborate in this way on why the three-fifths compromise was a Bad Thing leaves us with a difficult question: practically speaking, what was the alternative? The standard view, I think, is that while this compromise was a Bad Thing, since the Constitution was a Good Thing, it was, unfortunately, necessary. Here, for example, is Scott Lemieux, in comments on Erik Loomis’s LGM post about Wagner’s statement:
 I don’t actually have a problem with defending the compromises made with slave states in the Constitution; it’s not like a slave-free national union was an option. But I wouldn’t cite this as an example of the values of compromise either . . .

I mean, clearly several states would not have accepted a constitution that banned slavery, and that included Virginia. So it was only an option if you think that the “United States” should have excluded any existing slave states, a result that would have created a much weaker country while not actually emancipating any slaves.
While we are willing to declare the three-fifths clause a Bad Thing, we are much less willing to entertain the possibility that the Constitution was not a Good Thing…in which case it’s hard to argue with Lemieux’s logic here.

The problem is that, in our public discourse, we maintain an essentially Whiggish view of the U.S.’s ongoing constitutional experiment. Yes, Mistakes Were Made. But, in the long run, we assume that things basically kept getting better. Major steps along the way–such as the framing of the Constitution–were necessarily Good Things, even if they had bad bits. So there’s something uncomfortable about simultaneously calling the three-fifths compromise a Bad Thing and the Constitution a Good Thing, once we acknowledge the latter’s dependency on the former.  Of course, one never needs to make the argument that the Constitution was a Good Thing. That’s simply assumed.

And Alpers concludes with an important point about historical thinking:

There is, of course, much to be admired in the American Constitutional tradition. And there is also much to be criticized, especially in regards to the many compromises essentially caused by accommodating the institution of slavery.  Truly thinking historically about any of this involves moving beyond Good Things and Bad Things, into a world of shades of grey. It also involves acknowledging contingency. The Constitution was far from inevitable, as Pauline Maier reminded us a couple years ago.  Given the central role that the Founding plays in American civil religion, it may be too much to ask that our public culture start to think about these things more as historians do.  But one can always dream.


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