Over the years, Princeton alumni and professors have been leading participants in America’s long national discussion about race. Among the alumni who have helped shape this country’s thinking are public intellectuals such as Princeton professor Cornel West *80 and Michael Eric Dyson *93, a Georgetown University professor who has written more than a dozen books on race and American culture. But today’s conversation includes less-known thinkers like Helen Zia ’73, a child of Chinese immigrants who wrote a groundbreaking book about Asian-Americans, whom she deemed “missing in history” (Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, 2001); and Kevin Gover ’78, a member of the Pawnee Tribe in Oklahoma and the assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs during the Clinton administration, who now is interpreting and preserving Native American culture as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Here are brief sketches of Princetonians who over the last three centuries have influenced the national conversation — for good and for ill.
THE THREE-FIFTHS COMPROMISE
As a Princeton undergraduate, Oliver Ellsworth 1766 founded what became the Cliosophic Society. As a U.S. senator, he drafted the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the system of federal courts. He served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1796 until 1800. But he is listed here because of his role as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
After months of debate, efforts to draft a new Constitution had foundered because small states feared that they would be dominated by more populous states. Ellsworth and fellow delegate Roger Sherman devised what came to be known as the Connecticut Plan, which proposed a bicameral legislature in which all states would have an equal vote in the Senate while a House of Representatives would be apportioned based on population.
That begged a critical question: the population of what? Southerners insisted that slaves count in population totals, which would give them more seats in the House and more electoral votes in choosing a president. Northerners objected that this would give the Southerners too much power. To gain support for his Connecticut Plan, Ellsworth became a key supporter of a compromise in which each slave would be counted, for apportionment purposes, as three-fifths of a person. He also spoke out against abolishing the foreign slave trade and in favor of subjecting slavery to state, rather than federal, authority, in both cases to secure Southern support.
The three-fifths compromise exaggerated Southern influence in national affairs until the Civil War. It also probably ensured that when the presidential election of 1800 ended in an electoral tie and the decision was thrown to the House of Representatives, Virginian Thomas Jefferson prevailed, on the 36th ballot, over Ellsworth’s fellow Princetonian, Aaron Burr 1772.