The Commons

Readers respond to our October 2020 features.

Katie Martin

The Constitution Counted My Great-Great-Grandfather as Three-Fifths of a Free Person

In the October issue, Danielle Allen wrote about why she loves the flawed document anyway.

Danielle Allen says of James Wilson, “We have nonetheless all but forgotten him.”

It is true that Wilson was one of the most influential members of the Philadelphia Convention, where the Constitution was forged, and is now rarely mentioned in our history. But his legacy lives on in the Electoral College, a Frankensteinian institution that has caused the U.S. nothing but trouble for the past 200-some-odd years.

Wilson’s proposal that the people elect the president directly was considered impractical by many of the delegates, because suffrage was not universal and varied from state to state. It also meant that powerful Virginia would lose influence, because its vast population of enslaved people wouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Wilson then came up with a scheme in which states would be divided into districts that would vote for electors, who would later meet to vote for president. This solved the suffrage issue, because each state would be able to decide who could vote without affecting the influence of that state based on the actual size of its electorate.

Every four years, when we worry that a candidate whom the majority of people don’t want will somehow manage to become president, we should remember James Wilson, and the institution he helped build.

David Weintraub
Edison, N.J.

Danielle Allen writes, “The executive has a veto over legislation, but it can be overruled by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress, which means that an executive decision (on legislation) emanating from support of a bare majority of the people cannot overrule a view emanating from a supermajority of the country.”

But because of the way we elect presidents, via the Electoral College, a majority of the vote is not in fact required to become president, as evidenced twice in just the past five elections. And because every state, regardless of population, is afforded exactly two representatives in the Senate, neither is a “supermajority of the country” required to achieve a two-thirds majority of that legislative body. The combined population of all six New England states, which is fewer than 15 million, is less than half that of California alone, barely more than half that of Texas, and less than the populations of Florida and New York. So it is not entirely correct to say that “support of a bare majority of the people cannot overrule a view emanating from a supermajority of the country.”

Drew Hindes
Colchester, Vt.

As are many in our society, I’m experiencing incredible angst over the attempted destruction of our federal institutions and practices by the current administration and its enablers. Ms. Allen’s article has given me faith in our future. The article is both poetry and history lesson. Each word is essential, and shows how the possibility of great change is built into our system of government. I thank her for her writing.

Elizabeth Winter
Ashburn, Va.

How Disaster Shaped the Modern City

Visionary responses to calamities have changed urban life for the better, Derek Thompson argued in October.

Derek Thompson’s article implies that the December 1835 fire in New York City spawned the Croton Aqueduct. But in fact, a popular vote in April of that year overwhelmingly approved the proposed aqueduct, detailed plans for which had been developed after cholera killed more than 3,500 New Yorkers (one in 70) in 1832 and shocked the city into creating a proper water supply. The fire, which destroyed much property but killed only two people, served merely as affirmation of a process well under way. None of which is to deny that COVID‑19 may well yield long-term benefits.

Gerard Koeppel
Author, Water for Gotham: A History
New York, N.Y.

Derek Thompson focused on how the 1871 Chicago fire led to our city developing skyscrapers. The fire also led to something else I’m proud to be a part of: In 1872, a group of singers formed the Apollo Musical Club of Chicago to bring hope and music back to the burned city. Now called the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, we are the oldest performing-arts organization in the city. Our 150th anniversary season begins in July.

David Braverman
President, Apollo Chorus of Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

Q & A

The devastation of the coronavirus and the recent surge in support for Black Lives Matter have presented the United States with its best opportunity in 150 years to belatedly fulfill its promise as a multiracial democracy, Adam Serwer argued in October (“The Next Reconstruction”). Here, he responds to questions about his essay.

Q: You wrote about the surge in public support for Black Lives Matter over the summer. But that support has since dropped, according to the Pew Research Center. (Overall, 55 percent of adults supported the movement in September, down from 67 percent in June.) What do you think accounts for the shift?

A: It’s unsurprising that support would drop, given the nature of partisan polarization right now and how much time Republicans and conservative media have devoted to attacking Black Lives Matter. But the fact that there is majority support for a Black-rights movement in America is unusual, historically speaking. The civil-rights movement in the 1960s did not have consistent majority support—in fact, majorities were constantly saying that activists were harming their own cause rather than helping it.

Q: What are the most common misconceptions about Reconstruction you’ve encountered?

A: I haven’t encountered misconceptions so much as a lack of understanding about how profoundly the aftermath of the Civil War shaped the country America is today. Cultural memory of Reconstruction has actually shifted profoundly in my lifetime—a few decades ago many people were still romanticizing the white southern reaction and dismissing what the emancipated and the Radical Republicans tried to do, which was create a true multiracial democracy.

Behind the Cover

In our December cover story, Sarah Zhang investigates how scientific advances in prenatal testing have created hard choices for parents. For the cover, the photographer Julia Sellmann captured a tender moment: 6-year-old Elea, who has Down syndrome, relaxing into her mother, who is reading to Elea from one of her favorite books. This quiet, intimate, and intricate scene adds dimension to the medical lens through which disability is often seen.

Luise Stauss, Director of Photography


“The Constitution Counted My Great-Great-Grandfather as Three-Fifths of a Free Person” (October) implied that the adoption of the three-fifths clause constituted the Great Compromise. The Great Compromise was a broader agreement. The article also stated that the executive veto of legislation can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. In fact, an override requires a two-thirds vote by both houses of Congress.

“Last Exit” (November) referred to “Boss” William Tweed as a New York City mayor. He was not mayor of New York.