Quick Pitch: Civil War Statues & Imperfect Compromises By Jerome Mileur
Charlottesville ignited a debate over Civil War statues has revealed that we don't have a common understanding of American history. It is true that Thomas Jefferson owned Slaves, but he also wrote the words--"all me are created equal--that has been the moral standard to which America has through its history struggled to achieve. It has been the primary appeal of every liberation movement in our history. What is more important in our shared history: that Jefferson owned slaves or that he authored the moral standard to guide the nation, however slowly and imperfectly we moved toward it.
We should also recognize the truth about the Civil War. It was fought primarily to save the Union and secondarily to free the slaves. But it was amendments to that Constitution and to the rights it enumerates that ended slavery and it is those amendments that have been the cornerstone of African-American advances toward equality.
It is true enough that the Framers of the Constitution failed to end slavery, but had they insisted upon doing so the Constitution would never have been ratified and we would have had not nation, or perhaps we would have become two or three nations (a North, a South, and a West). Our history would have been different, but would it have been better?
Finally, and maybe most controversial, is the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise that is seen by many as a racist declaration that slaves were only three-fifths of a human being. In truth, while there were racial consequences, the provision itself was not racist in its intent. It dealt with taxation and representation. The South wanted to count slaves for purposes of representation in Congress but not for taxation (the primary federal tax being a levy on states based on their populations).
The North held that the South could not have it both ways, that I'd slaves were to count for purposes of representation they should count for purposes of taxation. Three-fifths was the compromise reached. It was messy, like many compromises, but it facilitated ratification by the southern states. In a sense, the North won a victory that slaves should be counted as persons, albeit only partially so. Full citizenship did not arrive until after the Civil War.
Jerry Mileur is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at The University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His most recent book, "The Stars are Back; The St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, and Player Unrest in 1946" (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013) combines his love for baseball and politics.