Slavery and the Constitution

Politicians, Scholars and the Challenge of Original Racism


  1. By Matthew Pinsker
  2. Teachers love teachable moments. The recent trip by Bernie Sanders to Liberty University has most definitely --and quite unexpectedly-- produced a good teachable moment about the meaning of the Constitution and its complicated relationship to slavery. Within less than a week after Sanders made an off-hand comment about the "racist principles" at the heart of the American founding in mid-September 2015, historians have fired back with a series of provocative op-eds, blog posts, and yes, even tweets. Most notably, Sean Wilentz offered a combative denial of the Sanders assertion in a New York Times op-ed, which itself infuriated several other historians who found his claims to be too simplistic. This essay offers an updated recap of this back-and-forth, but also a response. My position, as someone teaching this topic this semester, is that Wilentz is more right than wrong, and those attacking him now are confusing the politics of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign with what's really at stake here --a long view of how the antislavery movement in America ultimately defeated the powerful forces of slaveholding.
  3. First, here's a short clip of Sanders responding to a question about racism on September 14, and then a direct link to the Wilentz op-ed which followed in print two days later.
  4. Sanders did not actually mention the Constitution in his brief remarks, but Wilentz used the Vermont senator's statement about the "fact" of the "racist principles" being at the heart of the US creation as a hook to tackle an issue that he's been working on for some time: the antislavery origins of the US Constitution.
  5. Whether or not the original 1787 Constitution should be considered a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document is a longstanding concern. It's what historical figures like John C. Calhoun, William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln argued over. It's what modern-day historians have been debating for years as well. That's why when Wilentz somehwat gratuitously lumped "scholars and activists on the left" with Sanders, claiming they were all guilty of promoting a "myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery," he provoked a pretty angry backlash. I initially blogged about that backlash for my US constitutional history seminar, noting especially some harsh tweets from Ed Baptist and a rough blog post from Kevin Gannon.
  6. Admittedly, I went a little "professor" on my fellow professors, chiding them for being too dismissive of Wilentz's argument. Ed Baptist graciously responded via Twitter to this mini-lecture about civility, conceding the value of Wilentz's overall body of work, but still objecting strongly to the content and tenor of the particular op-ed.
  7. Baptist went on to detail some of his reasons for skepticism about Wilentz's claims, but concluded by recommending a more comprehensive post by Kevin Gannon (aka @TheTattooedProf).
  8. That's really not true, however. Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) did produce a thoughtful and well written blog post for The Junto, but there was hardly more than a couple of sentences about the actual framing of the Constitution. One of them, however, was a pretty smart insult that probably captured at least some of what Baptist was trying to suggest. "It's as if," wrote Gannon, "Wilentz stopped reading on this topic after William Wiecek." That's a reference to Wiecek's well-regarded book, The Sources of Anti-Slavery Constitutionalism in America (1977), which argued that there was a "federal consensus" emerging out of 1787 which had maintained that slavery was a local institution, protected by the Constitution to a degree, but only insofar as it was necessary to preserve a fragile union. Wiecek argues that this consensus basically fell apart after 1848 and the rest was Civil War.
  9. More recent scholarship by figures such as Paul Finkelman (1996), David Waldstreicher (2009), and George Van Cleve (2010) have taken issue with elements of the Wiecek view, arguing that there were deeper, more insidious concessions made to pro-slavery constitutionalism in Philadelphia than has been previously acknowledged.