Today we feature a guest post by Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), Professor of History and Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. His scholarship has appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic, Ohio History, and several edited volumes. He is currently writing a continental history of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Sean Wilentz’s op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times was by turns baffling, infuriating, and sad. At its root, the essay is a narrow, technical argument trying to disguise itself as an overarching Big Answer to Important Questions. Wilentz claims “the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery”—a myth embraced “notably among scholars and activists on the left”—is actually “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.”
That’s a pretty serious claim, and one would think that Wilentz, an accomplished and prolific historian, would marshal all available resources to defend it. Instead, we get a quick retreat into questionable assumptions grounded on technicalities. What he really means, we discover, is that “the proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution” failed, because slavery was defined as inherently local. Toleration of its existence, Wilentz claims, is not the same thing as providing “sanction [to] slavery in national law, as a national institution.” Ultimately, brave Founders like James Madison thus “prevented enshrining the racism that justified slavery.” You may think such notorious features as the Three-Fifths Compromise and the fugitive slave clause would be that very type of enshrining, but you would be wrong. These “were largely consolation prizes,” indicators of “slavery’s defensiveness,” and insignificant when weighed in the balance of all of the freedom and liberty enshrined in the Constitution. The real point, he argues, is that the Constitution never formally granted the right of property in human beings. And absent positive legal statements that defined people as property, the nation’s supreme charter would ultimately fulfill its Freedom-Drenched Destiny as the tool with which Abraham Lincoln could build emancipation.
So Wilentz’s sweeping claim that slavery was never woven into the national fabric at the founding rests upon the absence of a formal clause saying, “it’s OK to own other people, y’all.” This is a precarious foundation on which to rest an argument. But Wilentz’s entire corpus is predicated on the argument that Jacksonian Democracy, in its most Schlesingerian sense, was the motor that drove the inexorable “Rise of American Democracy.” To believe this, though, one has to soft-pedal (at best) the racialized, herrenvolk nature of that Democracy; see the Free-Soilers as the true representatives of the Jacksonian creed instead of actual Jacksonians like James Polk; and argue the moderates and conservatives within Whiggery and abolitionism sped the cause of freedom rather than delayed it. Then, and only then, does it become possible to swallow whole what Wilentz offers up in the op-ed columns of the Times.
Wilentz does not admit there’s an important difference between the Constitution being used as an antislavery tool and its being inherently antislavery. The former does not depend upon the latter to be true. It’s as if Wilentz stopped reading on this topic after William Wiecek. One can still argue for social justice without lying to themselves about for whom and what the Constitution was promulgated. Indeed, the national enshrinement of slavery was predicated upon the very compromises Wilentz blithely dismisses. The preponderance of slaveowners and their allies in the national government due to the Three-Fifths Compromise is one example. The grant of power to reclaim fugitive slaves in free states is another. Wilentz’s insinuation that, since the slaveholders in the Philadelphia Convention didn’t get everything they wanted, the Constitution was thus an unsullied Charter of Freedom elides a more nuanced and complex reality. Slavery and freedom did not exist as a zero-sum game in the early republic. They were bound inextricably together, and no matter how committed one is to a particular interpretive schema, they cannot be stirred apart.
Most significantly, Wilentz’s marshaling of one dubious argument in service of another does violence to the historical record by its erasure of agency. In this reading, the Constitution never nationally enshrined slavery, so the power wielded by slaveowners and the highly racialized nature of American political culture appears accidental, not the result of conscious decisions or policies; it just…. was. That’s a shallow, disingenuous explanation. It was actual people, wielding actual power, making actual decisions, acting in service of actual interests, who wove racism and slavery into the fabric of the young republic. As scholars, it’s absolutely vital for us to see this reality and to tell this story. Racism and slavery weren’t accidents. They were not Bad Things that mysteriously appeared amidst an unsuspecting nation of freedom-loving yeoman democrats. If we are to reckon with the ways in which racism and slavery have shaped our society, we cannot truck in wishful thinking and founder-worship. We have to admit that American racism and slavery were built. And what has been built can be dismantled. That is where the important work lies.