Sean Wilentz accused of shilling for Hillary in the course of debunking a claim made by Bernie Sanders

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, Clinton, Hillary, Sanders, Bernie



Alan Singer is a Social studies educator, Hofstra University.

Related Links

●  Was the Constitution of 1789 Anti-Slavery or Pro-Slavery? By Ian J. Aebel

●  Rethinking How We Teach About Slavery By Alan Singer

●  Racist Principles: Slavery and the Constitution By Patrick Rael 

●  Constitutionally, Slavery Is Indeed a National Institution By Lawrence Goldstone

In a New York Times op-ed, Princeton University History Professor Sean Wilentzdisputed claims that United States Constitution was a pro-slavery document. He argued, "Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it." 

But what Wilentz was really about was invoking the names of Lincoln and Douglass to attack the credibility of Vermont Senator and Democratic Party Presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders. Wilentz charged, "the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America's racist past." He also accused Sanders of perpetuating a myth that that "threatens to poison the current presidential campaign" when he stated the United States "in many ways was created, and I'm sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that's a fact." 

Wilentz may be a historian, but he was also writing as a political partisan. He has close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton and was active in Hillary's 2008 campaign for President, facts that should have been mentioned in the article, but were not. Wilentz called the beliefs about race and American history shared by Sanders "one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history." "Far from a proslavery compact of 'racist' principles," Wilentz wants us to accept his view that "the Constitution was based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of property in humans."

However, unlike Wilentz, Bernie Sanders made no claims about the meaning of the Constitution and it is a fact that when the Constitution was written there were approximately 700,000 enslaved Africans in the new nation, including Africans enslaved on the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. 

Wilentz claims to agree with Frederick Douglass' view that the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document. But Douglass did not believe the Constitution was an anti-slavery document either. His position was much more nuanced. In 1849, Douglass wrote in The North Star:

"The Constitution of the United States, standing alone, and construed only in the light of its letter, without reference to the opinions of the men who framed and adopted it, or to the uniform, universal and undeviating practice of the nation under it, from the time of its adoption until now, is not a pro-slavery instrument." 

But in the same article Douglass also wrote:

"[W]e hold it to be a most cunningly-devised and wicked compact, demanding the most constant and earnest efforts of the friends of righteous freedom for its complete overthrow . . . We have to do with facts, rather than theory. The Constitution is not an abstraction. It is a living breathing fact, exerting a mighty power over the nation of which it is the bond of the Union. Had the Constitution dropped down from the blue overhanging sky, upon a land uncursed by slaver, and without an interpreter, although some difficulty might have occurred in applying its manifold provisions, yet so cunningly is it framed, that no one would have imagined that it recognized or sanctioned slavery. But having a terrestrial, and not a celestial origin, we find no difficulty in ascertaining its meaning in all the parts which we allege to relate to slavery."




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