Wilentz Responds

By Matthew Pinsker

Sean Wilentz (Daniel Kramer)

Sean Wilentz (Daniel Kramer)

The recent fracas over whether or not the US was founded on “racist principles” has generated plenty of comment, which this course blog has summarized here and here.  The heart of the matter (for academic historians) has become a debate over the meaning of Sean Wilentz’s op-ed about the antislavery nature of the US Constitution which appeared in the New York Times on September 16th.  Several leading historians criticized him for glossing over the pro-slavery dimensions of the 1787 convention. I emailed Wilentz and he has generously agreed to share his initial response to these criticisms with my students.  He wrote:

Of course the Constitution included protections for slavery. My Op-Ed says so. They were not as powerful as historians think they were, but they were there and made a difference. Of course there was a federal consensus built into the Constitution. My Op-Ed says so. It also says that the Constitution would have been impossible without it. Do these historians truly think that it could have been otherwise? Do they think Northern delegates would have, or should have, agreed to a Constitution  which would have allowed the national government to interfere with the property relations established at law by their own states — and thereby, among other things, endangered Northern emancipation?

Those I have read actually concede my point on the Southern defeat over property in man, but they refuse to see the importance of that concession for any understanding of the Constitution — let alone for the politics of the 1840s and 1850s. Apparently, they cannot even question the underlying belief, which has gained enormous force inside the academy, that the Constitution was founded on slavery, that the Northerners lost (or caved in on) every important argument over slavery, &c.  Apparently, they think of themselves of Garrisonians even as they take Calhoun’s position, which was in many ways essentially the same as Garrison’s.

More important, perhaps, at least as an extended defense of his own views on this topic, Wilentz delivered the Constitution Day Address  at Princeton this year –in fact, on the same day that his op-ed appeared in print.  More than anything, this lecture offers a detailed window into what he sees as the antislavery triumph in Philadelphia –a strategic victory that he believes modern-day scholars have underestimated.

In the spring of 2015, Wilentz also delivered the Nathan I. Huggins Lecture at Harvard which addressed this topic and other related issues.  For those who want an even deeper examination of his views, check out the video links to his series entitled: “No Property in Man: The Origin of Antislavery Politics.”

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