By Matthew Pinsker
The words “slavery” or “slave” did not appear in the original US Constitution adopted by the Framers on September 17, 1787 and ratified by the states in the following year. That’s either an important triumph for late eighteenth-century antislavery sentiment, or just a thin, hypocritical facade that merely hid a series of concessions to rising slaveholder power in the new country. It all depends on your point of view.
That’s always been the hotly contested case, both then and now. As we celebrated Constitution Day in 2015, we have been reminded of this often-bitter debate because of a spat that has erupted in the wake of the Democratic primary campaign. While speaking at Liberty University in Virginia on September 14th, presidential contender Bernie Sanders made a comment during Q&A that ignited some controversy. He reminded the audience of evangelical Christian students that the United States was “in many ways created … from way back on racist principles.” “That’s a fact,” he observed calmly, before crediting the country with having “come a long way” over the years, most recently by electing Barack Obama as president in 2008.
Sanders’s comments provoked some backlash in conservative media always on the look out for politically correct assaults on the dogma of American exceptionalism, but it also seemed to motivate a particularly feisty New York Times op-ed from Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who happens to be a leading advisor to Hilary Clinton. Wilentz adamantly denied that the US constitution was a pro-slavery document, and went so far as to call it a “myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery,” claiming that this misunderstanding “persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past.”
That’s what they call in the academic business, “drawing the battle lines.”
What happened next therefore should have been predictable, but it still caught me by surprise. The comments section at the New York Times website exploded, the blogosphere lit up, and a number of leading scholar / activists “angry at America’s racist past” took to social media to berate Wilentz for his ignorance. One of the tweets that hit me hardest was by noted slavery scholar Ed Baptist from Cornell. He openly mocked Wilentz, one of the most distinguished figures in our field, calling his op-ed “pure comedy gold.”
In another tweet, Baptist dismissed Wilentz’s piece as “utterly unconvincing” and went so far as to accuse him in public of “hauling water for Hilary and Bill.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor from University of Virginia, blasted Wilentz’s argument as “shallow” and “unbecoming a historian.” Kevin Gannon from Grand View University (who, admittedly, has one of the best historical twitter handles: @thetattooedprof) 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 “sad.”
Wilentz loves these kinds of fights, but I find them somewhat depressing. His point, stripped of the polemics, is a powerful intellectual one. The Framers of the Constitution steadfastly refused to include the principle of slavery –the concept of “property in man”– into the nation’s founding charter. They didn’t just leave the word out; but fought hard over limiting the principle to a very local domain. Freedom was always national. That matters. However, even though it matters, it doesn’t negate the realities of color prejudice, the horrors of slavery, or even the unanticipated and dreadful consequences of specific 1787 concessions to the nation’s slaveholders. Yet that nuance too easily gets lost in this kind of crossfire. Bernie Sanders wasn’t commenting on the Constitution directly at Liberty University, and much of the venom directed at Wilentz by other scholars conflates the realities of early American “racism” with more complicated questions about American constitutional jurisprudence. That’s what’s so depressing. They’re talking past each other. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sort out such issues during abbreviated Q&A sessions, through op-ed pages, or by tweets, but there should be some sense of acknowledgement by participants that this issue is a seriously contested one. There are no simple facts and no easy conclusions. Scholars, activists and even scholar/activists need to find ways to defend their views with vigor (and plenty of verve) without also belittling their opposition.
I want to devote part of this semester, in both my senior seminar on the US Constitution and in my general survey of early American history, to seeking a better, more effective way to teach this great and profoundly important battle of interpretations.