Damned If You Do

[The following post is written by, once again, the very sexy, ex-MMA thrower-downer-turned-Anabaptist sympathizer, Matthew Morin. Take it away, Matt . . .]

In a letter that unintentionally highlights the value of a liberal arts education, engineer-turned-university-president James Wagner recently lauded the three-fifths compromise as a “pragmatic half-victory” that brought “the country more closely together.” I offer two objections.

First of all, if we are going to be technical about it, this was a pragmatic 60% victory, not half.  (In the words of Tommy Callahan: “Surprised you didn’t know that.”)

Secondly, WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL? How hopelessly buried under the privilege of whiteness does one have to be to think—let alone write—such thoughts? (This man was paid $1.1 million last year. The point-one stands for one hundred thousand dollars.) How powerful must the fetishization of “realism” and “compromise” be to even attempt such an argument? And finally, how can someone who intends to commend pragmatism to his audience, fail to predict the fallout that would follow such asinine remarks?

But perhaps I am being too hard on President Wagner, as well as the original proponents of the three-fifths compromise.  At the risk of offering a self-serving oversimplification—that is to say, a particular historical narration—consider the following account.

In 1787, at the time of the compromise, federal taxes were calculated partially on the basis of population size. The Northern states wanted slaves counted as “full people” in part because the Southern states would be required to pay a greater sum to the federal government.

At the same time, representation in congress and the electoral college was also determined by the size of a state’s population. So some delegates from Northern states opposed counting slaves as full people, since this would give Southern states greater control over the federal government.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice violent control over other human beings.

So what was the best course of action from a Northern perspective? (Since, when exercising the historical imagination, it is always best to place oneself in the position of victor and altruist.) Would you rather count slaves as zero people and gain majority control over the Federal government, or count slaves as full people thereby risking Southern control and subsequent proliferation of slavery? I would especially like to hear the thoughts from our current Pragmatist-In-Chief, and all his good liberal supporters who have expressed outrage over Mr. Wagner’s letter.

In addition to these two bad options, allow me to suggest that there was a (wait for it) third way—namely, join the Mennonites.

In 1688, a full 99 years before the three-fifths compromise was penned, and a mere eight miles from where it was penned, a group of Quakers and Mennonites gathered in Germantown, PA to compose the first known protest against slavery in colonial America.

Lacking the sophisticated legal reasoning of the three-fifths authors, this small group of Christians simply justified their refusal to own slaves as such: “We shall do to all men like as we will be done ourselves, making no difference of what generation, descent, or color they are.” It’s almost like they were trying to follow Jesus or something.

So what was the appropriate course of action for the Northern and Southern delegate alike? Chuck it. Walk away. Refuse to let the deists dictate the terms of the discussion. In the words of Shai Hulud, “Let the masses dictate themselves.” Or, for the more Lenten-minded among us, “Nah. Keep the authority and splendor of your kingdom.” (New Sectarian Fideistic Tribalist Version)

Granted, such a course of action might have not have changed anything. Their friends and families might have labeled them “idealists.” The three-fifths compromise might still have passed. Slave-owners might even have gained greater congressional representation. But at least those who walked away wouldn’t be judged in posterity as men whose pragmatism amounted to nothing more than a weak-kneed capitulation to the racist status quo.

Anybody care to disagree? Who wants to defend Mr. Wagner?


Matthew Morin lives in Milwaukee, WI and worships with Milwaukee Mennonite Church. His current work in comparative theology lies at the intersection of changing diapers and swinging kettlebells.

Matthew Morin :
  • Matt

    “The point-one stands for one hundred thousand dollars.”

  • Greg

    Can American pragmatism create anything other than the Wagner’s of this world?

    • theamishjihadist

      And you shall know them by their fruits.

      Good question.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=8622251 Matt Morin

      I don’t know.

      However, since writing this, I have had several people defend Wagner and the 3/5ths compromise. One is studying law at Harvard.

      • theamishjihadist

        Matt, I’m trying to think of something more corrupt than studying law at Harvard…

        I might be here for awhile.