Sean Wilentz is wrong about the Constitution and slavery

Roundup
tags: slavery, Constitution



Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College. His most recent book, "Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865" (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

Related Links 

●  Sean Wilentz responds to his critics

●  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



According to Sean Wilentz’s opinion piece in the September 16 New York Times, the Constitution of 1787 did not make slavery a national institution. The noted American historian cites the anxiety of some of the founding fathers over slavery to counter “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history,” the claim that our national government was established on “racist principles.”

Wilentz is wrong. The Constitution incorporated slavery into our national system of governance. If slavery was not legal in every state, it was nonetheless “national law,” protected and upheld by the Constitution.

Wilentz badly misinterprets the antislavery sentiment evident at the constitutional convention of 1787. In his version of history, if most of the Framers did not explicitly defend slavery, they must have stood against it. And if the slaveholders did not get everything they wished, they must have lost. In other words, if the glass was not empty, it must have been full. But for the first eight decades of our country’s life, the devil’s bargain struck in 1787 warped almost every aspect of national politics and national life.

American Revolutionaries constantly invoked a freedom-bondage binary they knew well. “We must assert our rights,” George Washington declared in 1774, “or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” As they envisioned themselves as slaves to tyrannical Britain, the founders also understood that their own practice of slavery badly undermined their justification for revolutionary violence in defense of freedom. Wrote New York’s John Jay, “To contend for our own liberty and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”

But when delegates met in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution in 1787, they never considered ending the right of property in man. And once slavery entered the new nation by default, the institution could not simply be ignored – it had to be actively protected. How did this apparent contradiction come to pass? ...




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