Guest Post: The Constitution, Slavery, and the Problem of Agency

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.

constitution_1_of_4_630Sean 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.”

Well, now.

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.

47 comments on “Guest Post: The Constitution, Slavery, and the Problem of Agency

  1. Benedict@Large says:

    I was looking around for a piece of Mr. Wilentz left to diced up, by Mr. Gannon seems to have done the job quite nicely all by himself.

  2. Christian James says:

    I’ve heard historians say the 3/5ths Clause was a decisive factor in Jefferson’s election and plenty of other presidential elections. (Apologies that no citation comes to mind instantly.) Is that not enough to destroy Wilentz’s ‘consolation prize’ argument? Or is it too speculative to levy against a celeb historian in NYT?

    Maybe that’s even too narrow a point to argue, since Prof. Gannon does such a nice job pointing out the bigger problems with Wilentz’s editorial. But I would think that for a general readership, the presidential election question would seem like a pretty damning counterargument.

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      First, thanks to Tom Cutterham for a vigorous and convincing refutation of Sean Wilentz. (I hope, however, that we can discuss Abraham Lincoln’s argument in his 1860 Cooper Union address and Frederick Douglass’s argument in his 1854 speech identifying the Constitution as “A GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” (his capital letters), which Wilentz invokes as authoriy — and perhaps as shield?).

      I would love to see an analysis, statistical or otherwise, showing that the slavery-skewed electoral college actually did give Jefferson an advantage over Adams in 1800, but this seems to be one of those assumptions that nobody has tested.

      If anyone can direct me to some such analysis, that would be really helpful. (By the way, such an analysis has to be based on the apportionment of Congress and the electoral college as of the 1790 census, not as of the 1800 census, which did not become the basis for apportionment until 1804.)

      • R. B. Bernstein says:

        Oops — I should thank Todd Cutterham for posting and Kevin Gannon for WRITING that convincing and vigorous refutation.

      • Kevin Gannon says:

        I’m not in my regular office right now, but my recollection is that Garry Wills’ _The Negro President_ and Leonard Richards’ _The Slave Power_ both look at the 1800 election, and agree with the New England High Federalists who denounced Jefferson’s victory as purely a creature of slave apportionment.

        As for Lincoln and Douglass, I’d argue that a significant part of their motivation in painting the Constitution as a “glorious freedom document” was to stake out different ground than the radical Garrisonians’ unflinching attacks on it as a “covenant of death and agreement with hell.” Douglass had moved into the political abolitionists’ camp by the 1850s, and antislavery constitutional interpretation was part and parcel of their approach–indeed, the raison d’etre of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. For Lincoln, too, I’d suggest that for a legally-trained Henry Clay Whig, yet one who professed to despise slavery, the Constitution *couldn’t* be what Garrison et al. were claiming it was. I think the distinction between “potentially powerful antislavery tool” and “created antislavery in the beginning” is an important one, and perhaps operative here.

      • phadde2 says:

        I think Cutterham is spot on with this statement: “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.”

        I believe Lincoln in the Cooper Union Address supports Cutterham’s argument rather than Wilentz’s. Dr. Michael Burlingame indicates in his biography of Lincoln that Lincoln’s argument in the Cooper Address stresses whether federal involvement in the debate of slavery into the Western territories and whether the Consitution gave the Federal government power to regulate slavery within said places. (Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life Vol. 1 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), 585. The mention of slavery three times in the Constitution is all but undeniable, it’s there, plain as day, a fact that Lincoln doesn’t even argue having said he would support upholding the law of the fugitive slave act.

        Lincoln, of course, breaks down the voting record says: “Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the “thirty-nine” who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government. ”

        “Let us now inquire whether the “thirty-nine,” or any of them, ever acted upon this question (slavery); and if they did, how they acted upon it – how they expressed that better understanding?”

        “In 1784, three years before the Constitution – the United States then owning the Northwestern Territory.”

        “four of the “thirty-nine” who afterward framed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on that question. Of these, Roger Sherman, Thomas Mifflin, and Hugh Williamson voted for the prohibition, thus showing that, in their understanding,”

        “while the Northwestern Territory still was the only territory owned by the United States, the same question of prohibiting slavery in the territory again came before the Congress of the Confederation; and two more of the “thirty-nine” who afterward signed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on the question. They were William Blount and William Few; and they both voted for the prohibition.”

        “1789, by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution, an act was passed to enforce the Ordinance of ’87, including the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. The bill for this act was reported by one of the “thirty-nine,” Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. It went through all its stages without a word of opposition, and finally passed both branches without yeas and nays, which is equivalent to a unanimous passage. In this Congress there were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman, Wm. S. Johnson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Thos. Fitzsimmons, William Few, Abraham Baldwin, Rufus King, William Paterson, George Clymer, Richard Bassett, George Read, Pierce Butler, Daniel Carroll, James Madison.”

        The above shows that Lincoln examined the opinions of the framers of the Constitution with their the voting record. Dr. Burlingame also examines that “among the sixteen singers whose opinion could be inferred from voting records were leading critics of slavery, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris.” (Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life Vol. 1, 585.)

        The Cooper Union address used the voting pattern as a tool for Lincoln to support his antislavery platform in Western Territories, but it’s pretty clear that in Lincoln’s time, the idea of established slavery isn’t within the Constitution would be a foreign one. If it was present, he might have argued the point with Douglas. However, one must also take into account that Lincoln depending on his audience would play to their prejudices. As exhibited in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Ottawa, IL vs. Charleston, IL). If Lincoln could make an argument that Slavery wasn’t instituted within the frameworks of the Constitution, it would be likely during his era he wouldn’t have tried to make such an argument if running for political office. If looking for such an argument during that period, I would look at Frederick Douglass as mentioned or Wendell Phillips or William Lloyd Garrison.

  3. I couldn’t resist the invitation to look (quickly) at Census data. Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

    I went to the UVA Historical Census Browser and pulled data on the number of free and enslaved persons in 1790. I then calculated the rough percentage of the population of the states that Adams and Jefferson each won in 1800, once with just free persons, once with free plus 3/5.

    In the election that actually happened, Jefferson won states with about 54% of the 1790 population (free + 3/5) and Adams 46%. That tracks reasonably closely to the 73-65 electoral vote.

    If you take out enslaved people, which remember cut the size of the population in every state but Massachusetts and Vermont, the vote switches (the voting population didn’t change). Adams won states that would represent about 52% of the 1790 free population and Jefferson 48%. I didn’t take the step of redistributing the Electoral College based on those reduced figures, nor did I account for the states where the electoral vote was split, so take this for what it’s worth, but the numbers are, well, curiously interesting.

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Nice one, Joe!

      • R. B. Bernstein says:

        The problem with Joseph Adelman’s calculations is that the Electoral College allows for an electoral-vote winner who comes in behind the popular-vote winner. I think that the question has to be more complicated — to what extent does the three-fiftths clause inflate the electoral-vote totals of the several states and how, if we simply adjusted the votes per state to exclude enslaved Americans, would the resulting corrected electoral-votes-per-state affect the outcome of the 1800 presidential election?

        • Yeah, I was trying to give a ballpark sense of how that might look without having to do the math to reapportion the Electoral College. But I saved the spreadsheet of statewide population totals, if anyone else wants to pick up the ball from there.

  4. Jimmy Dick says:

    Excellent rebuttal of Sean Wilentz. I was astonished when I saw his article and just cannot buy into what he wrote.

  5. eherschthal says:

    Gannon’s done an excellent job. I wish I could have been as articulate as this in the reply I wrote to my own family, in an email, after they asked for my thoughts.

  6. Nic Wood says:

    (I tried posting this early but it didn’t seem to work, apologies if its duplicated.) The 3/5 clause was often very important, but Richards points out in _Slave Power_ that parity in the Senate, along with the influence of northern “doughfaces” who voted with the South, was often even more important than the role of the 3/5 in the House of Reps. And TJ decisively won the popular vote with 61% to Adams’s 39% in 1800.

    I agree with Gannon’s argument that Wilentz’s distinction about property is purely semantic. But I sympathize with Wilentz’s broader point that historians often overstate the proslavery nature of the Constitution. The Constitution clearly protected slaveholders’ interests, but so had the Articles of Confederation. For example, whereas Congress couldn’t ban the importation of slaves until 1808 under the Constitution, they didn’t hat the power to EVER ban it under the Articles.

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      I’d say in gentle disagreement with Nic Wood (and I stress “gentle”) that there is a notable difference between the Constitution accommodating slavery (which I think is what happened) and the Constitution being table-poundingly pro-slavery. But both of those differ from the Constitution being anti-slavery, whether table-poundingly or not. Prof. Wilentz seems to take the latter view, and I can’t go that far. But I think that historians do not really overstate the proslavery tilt of the Constitution; they may accentuate it, but it is there. At the same time, the founding guys were seeking somehow not to lock that proslavery tilt unambiguously into the document, which is why they avoided using the explicit words “slave” and “slavery” in the document. Thus, I remain in the Don Fehrenbacher camp rather than in the Paul Finkelman cap.

      • Nic Wood says:

        Agreed that the Constitution was definitely not antislavery, but my point is that while it was proslavery compared to what we now (and abolitionists and African Americans at the time) wish it had been, it was not that much of a departure from the Articles. And yes, I also agree with the complex and contradictory impulses recognized by Fehrenbacher. (And clearly I’d meant “they didn’t *have* the power to EVER ban it under the Articles.”)

        • R. B. Bernstein says:

          So, Nic Wood, we pretty-much agree. 🙂

          One more thing to say — and that has to do with Taney’s originalist take on slavery and the Constitution in DRED SCOTT v. SANDFORD (1857). Taney read slavery as being a national property right, and thus an institution of national scope, and thus held further that Congress had no power to limit its spread, despite the catalogue of examples of Congressional action limiting slavery’s spread as catalogued by Lincoln in his Cooper Union speech. Moreover, Taney read the founding guys as intending that slavery have that national character. Was Taney idiosyncratically and/or wrongheadedly reading his own judgements about the entwined histories of slavery and the Constitution into the document and the original intentions, meanings, or understandings of the founding guys? That’s what Don Fehrenbacher argued in his grand book on the case. Or did Taney get it right, and we just can’t bear it? That’s what Mark Graber argued in DRED SCOTT AND THE PROBLEM OF CONSTITUTIONAL EVIL.

          • Nic Wood says:

            Graber, if I recall correctly, based a lot of his argument on the assumption that the Founders intended the South to always have a sectional veto over any question regarding slavery and that some of the western territories would always be open to slavery. But even if that were true, it doesn’t mean that Congress had no power (as Taney maintained) to ban slavery in some of the territories (as they of course did on many occasions).

            On the other hand, I must concede that I find part of the slaveholders’ constitutional arguments from the Missouri Crisis convincing. If Congress banned slavery in Missouri before it entered the Union, as a state Missouri could have simply reintroduced slavery. (Even James Tallmadge grudgingly acknowledged this might be the case.)

      • Alec Rogers says:

        Richard is a braver man than I.

      • H. Paul Thompson, Jr. says:

        I wonder if these fine distinctions of the degree of pro- & anti slavery bias in the Constitution made any practical difference to the actual slaves themselves? Obviously it did not for several generations of slaves! What privilege we exhibit, in our hair splitting over the nature of this document! Millions were KEPT in bondage, raped, and died in despair because this document did not end/permitted its perpetuation in this nation for generations. Period.

        • phadde2 says:

          Perhaps, we take into account whether those who were emancipated and later freed by the 13th amendment thought it made a practical difference whether the document left a wedge for a debate?

          I wonder if these moralizers should reflect on their own privilege, that those who debated such a document had no concept of the arguments that they use to detract them and the historians who reflect on their works. I wonder whether the over 300,000 lives, who helped force the wedge created by the degree of pro and anti-slavery bias within the document, with their blood spilt on the earth made a practical difference to keep a Union intact (with its constitution) that would aid in the methods instilled in the Constitution to amend the document…

          “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” – A. Lincoln

          Oh, yeah. Period.

  7. Roy Rogers says:

    Well done, Kevin. Well done.

    What’s tragic here is that Wilentz takes a perfectly valid (but contested) historiographical position – that the Constitution made “freedom” the national position and slavery a local exception – and distorted it beyond recognition. Indeed, the remarks by Sanders aren’t even really about the Constitution!

    • Dan says:

      But Roy, isn’t it possible that if there’s a legitimate debate (even if contested) about the role slavery played in the drafting of the Constitution, that there might be a legitimate debate about the role of slavery in some of the other periods of early American history as well – including whatever one(s) Sanders was talking about? Might this make Wilentz’s generalization (or “distortion” as you call it) somewhat more legitimate than everyone’s initial reactions would credit it?

      The problem is for too many historians, suggesting anything that diverts from the orthodoxy on slavery in America – whether the slaves freed themselves, whether slavery was in fact the primary reason for the South’s involvement in the Revolution, the role of slavery in drafting the Constitution – is seen as heretical and is immediately followed by accusations of privilege, and racism, and microaggressions, etc. etc. A distressing number of historians simply are not interested in a debate about these issues.

      I mentioned in a comment in the earlier thread on Gordon Wood that I’ve found more than one example of historians trying to find causality between individual slave rebellions, or attempted rebellions, in 1774-1775, and Patriot military actions taken against the British. In each of these situations, however, realities of time and space argue against the possibility that one caused the other. But in linking the two, historians further the narrative that southern involvement in the war was primarily about potential British-backed slave rebellion, which wasn’t the case.

      So if it’s possible that Wilentz has taken a side in a legitimate debate about slavery and the Constitution – even if it’s a side you don’t agree with – it follows that there are other legitimate debates to be had about the role of slavery in other periods of early American history. Your even admitting that the debate is legitimate would be considered transgressive by not a few historians – particularly those who think their role as historians is to interpret history in a way that best allows them to address what they see to be current societal problems.

      • Nobody here accused Wilentz or any other historian of “privilege, and racism, and microaggressions, etc. etc.” This entire (civil) discussion has been about the history of race and slavery in early America. There has been debate, without personal attacks. Just a few comments above you, people are siding with Don Fehrenbacher’s take on the issue, which hardly represnets the ‘orthodox’ position.

  8. Hi there. First, to admit that my area of study is premodern history. So I’m out of my depth here historiographically. BUT… I did get to see Wilentz speak for almost an hour on this topic on the day the op-ed came out, so there’s a bit of perspective I can offer, without necessarily trying to convince:

    First off, something that I think will be obvious: hearing the full version with all the evidence made a lot stronger case than he could in 600 words. I can’t even attempt to reproduce all of it, but here’s the gist: for each of the three notorious clauses that apparently sold out the abolitionists — the 3/5 compromise, the fugitive slave clause, and the refusal to end the international slave trade until 1808 — Wilentz dug into the archives and presented the several revisions that reflected the debates going on, and argued that the anti-slavery delegates pushed as hard as they could without losing the pro-slavery delegates entirely.

    Now, what you’re left with there is an argument that boils down to three things: “It was on its way to being a hell of a lot worse”; “Making sure of the exclusion of ‘humans as property’ was the key thing.” Whether these two things add up to “the constitution is not a racist document” is a matter for interpretation. In fact, in the Q & A, Wilentz himself said that Abraham Lincoln was “probably on the far left end of the racist spectrum.” 19th-c context and all that.

    There were definitely bits that I was less convinced by. For example, in the final revision that included “on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due”, he read the late addition of that “may be” as dissembling or waffling, where I just read it as the subjunctive mood. I also want to ask him about the issue of intentionality: His “so what” in the talk was that the antislavery northerners left the loopholes that would be essential to the constitutional argument that Lincoln would make in the lead-up to the civil war. I wondered if Wilentz might not be reading backward.

    I have to think for a while to wonder whether or not I’m convinced. But here’s the one thing I’m certain of (and the one thing I’m going to write about on my own blog tonight or tomorrow): being a public intellectual means oversimplifying and sometimes leaving out important points (or having those points cut by an editor who maintains a strict word count). Writing for a broader public in TL;DR mode means that historians are going to call crap on what you say, because you haven’t presented sufficient evidence. It’s a problem. But the enterprise is still worthwhile.

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      I must dissent from Marie Kelleher’s odd definition of what being a public intellectual is. I always thought — and I was taught by a public intellectual who tried to live up to this standard — that a historian public intellectual must try as hard as he or she can to get things rignt. It does NOT mean oversimplifying or sometimes leaving out important points. In fact, it means quite the reverse, for we can always find nonhistorian public intellectuals to oversimplify things or leave out important points for us. Otherwise, why bother being a historian public intellectual? Don’t we get our public-intellectual cred from being historians, which means being part of a profession committed to getting our sense of the past as right as possible? If an op-ed editor cuts things and garbles what you have to say, then either (a) refuse to go forward with the piece or (b) be sure never to work with that editor again.

      • Marie Kelleher says:

        Richard, I think you hit on it with your phrase “getting our sense of the past as right as possible.” I agree that we should aim to be more intellectually rigorous than the interested amateurs, but there’s only so much that even the most succinct author can squeeze into 600 words (and most op-eds aren’t longer than this, so “publish somewhere else” won’t really solve much).

        One solution would be not to attempt to tackle such complex issues in op-eds. I could write 600 words on why “clash of civilizations” is the wrong way to describe Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages, and I’d surely garble bits and pieces of it. But But medium-form writing is an important venue that I wouldn’t want professionals to forgo. In the end, the reader would know more than they did before. They might, as the OP and commenters here have done, disagree on certain matters of both fact and interpretation (“Hey! Kelleher! Did you never hear of a little thing called the crusades?”). But I belive that as long as we are making things better (even incrementally so) and avoiding making things worse, that’s a win. YMMV.

        …Annnddd… I just realized that my last sentence kind of lines up with Wilentz’s. Not intentional there.

    • John says:

      “His ‘so what’ in the talk was that the antislavery northerners left the loopholes that would be essential to the constitutional argument that Lincoln would make in the lead-up to the civil war. I wondered if Wilentz might not be reading backward.”

      On my read James Oakes makes the very same argument in “Freedom National”.

  9. Dan says:

    “And what has been built can be dismantled. That is where the important work lies.”

    Whatever position you take on Wilentz’s column, this concluding sentence here is more than a little troubling. The job of the historian is not to be an activist. The important work is to understand the past as it was, not based on what you wish it had been like or how you want the present to look.

    • John says:

      The entire final paragraph is troubling.

      “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.”

      I would think it goes without saying that slaveowners could make conscious decisions regarding slavery whether the Constitution had enshrined slavery nationally or not.

  10. Scott Heerman says:

    I’ve enjoyed this piece and the exchange in the comments. I did just want to add what Professor Wilentz himself wrote a decade ago in “The Rise of American Democracy.” I find it a bit puzzling why he has changed his thinking.

    “Delegates from the southern states, above all South Carolina and Georgia, made it clear that they would not approve of the more perfect union unless it gave some positive protections to slavery. . . The final draft avoided mentioning slavery explicitly (It would, James Madison said, be ‘wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.’) But the delegates effectively barred the federal government from taking any action against slavery in the states, counted slaves a three-fifths of full citizens for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College (as well as for direct taxation), and included a provision guaranteeing slaveholders return of their runaway slaves. . . ‘In Short,’ Charles Cotesworth Pinckney told the South Carolina convention called to debate the Constitution’s ratification, ‘considering all circumstances, we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make. We would have made them better if we could; but, on the whole, I do not they them bad.'” p.34.

    • Dan says:

      I’m not sure this contradicts his column. In fact the Pinckney quote itself concedes that they didn’t succeed in what they wanted to do, and had to accept some half measures. Wilentz isn’t arguing that the Constitution didn’t have elements that applied to slavery. He’s arguing that wasn’t the core foundation of the document, and Pinckney’s quote supports that. Over the last decade Wilentz has probably watched his moderate position go from generally accepted to not sufficiently social justice-y. So what seemed like he held one position a decade ago makes it look like he’s espousing an entirely different opinion today, when what actually changed – and caused his tone to change if not his argument – was the rest of the field, and the way it has spilled over into public discourse (at least in the liberal blogosphere and among Democratic – or socialist! – politicians)

      • scottandchristopher says:

        To the contrary I think the change is rather apparent: he calls the fugitive slave clause a positive protection for slavery a decade ago. Yet this week he suggests that fugitive slave clause as an insignificant consolation prize. If you want to suggest the field has changed drastically in the last decade, can you please cite a few major books that since 2005 have argued that the constitution was proslavery to its core?

  11. […] found himself “baffled” by the Wilentz reading of the Constitution, and then produced a blog post which went even further, labeling the effort “infuriating” and […]

  12. VES says:

    Wilentz is correct (sort of). Constitution protects property. Planters held and worked slaves to make $$$. The fear was the Slave Power Conspiracy. This should be the starting point for any discussion of slavery. Wilentz knows it. Walter Johnson knows it. Genovese knew it, as did O’Brien, Woodward, and Phillips, and yet the soldiers of the New Left keep on truckin’. Why do you think WEB DuBois and Genovese turned their back on liberalism?

  13. […] Dr. Gannon wrote a guest post for the academic blog, “The Junto.” You can read it here. According to Gannon, the Wilentz piece “was by turns baffling, infuriating, and sad.” […]

  14. As a High School APUSH teacher for 25 years all I can say is Bravo…to you who choose to be the light to us all. Your vigorous and respectful debate is simply amazing. I thank you for your fidelity to your field. This debate for me has been a treasure which will enable me to more succinctly present this issue with my students. Thank you.

  15. […] Constitution Slavery and the Problem of Slavery […]

  16. […] Times declaring slavery always a state, not a national institution. I cannot improve upon the many responses he has received, not even to say that he should know better. But arguing over whether the […]

  17. […] I find myself entirely in agreement with Kevin Gannon over at the Junto: […]

  18. […] with a counterfactual that’s been bothering me for months. Back in September, Kevin Gannon wrote a guest post here rebutting claims made by Sean Wilentz in a New York Times op-ed. As part of the […]

  19. […] What’s amazing about the Constitution is that one can easily trace in its various provisions the specific ways in which the Framers were freaked out about the current state of American political culture. It’s remarkable, really, to see a group of revolutionary-era leaders try so desperately to walk back much of what their revolution purported to be for. Yes, the creation of a republic was still a profoundly significant and unusual political move for the late eighteenth century, but the really remarkable aspect of the Constitution is the series of hedged bets that run throughout the entire framework. We see this most clearly with slavery–in particular, the belligerent intransigence of the southern delegates determined to beat back any threat (real or perceived) to their states’ rights to enslave others. The anomalous nature of chattel slavery in a republic at least theoretically dedicated to individual liberty was too obvious even for a room full of elite white males, many of them personally invested in the institution, to ignore; clearly, slavery needed active and sustained guarantees in order for it to survive. And the Framers, with only token grumbling, did its bidding, and enshrined despotism within their republican charter. 2 […]

  20. […] planning on posting a response to the original op-ed anyway. I was happy to do so, and they kindly published my piece, which led to some pretty robust discussion in the comment threads. The next day, I got a message […]


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