Slavery and the Constitution: Historians Debate Posted on September 21st, 2015 by

We the Peoplecotton1-2

(Right Photo: Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston)

As we stress to students in our Gustavus History courses, History is a dynamic (not static) discipline or field of study. As historians, we disagree with one another all the time over our interpretations of the past. In this sense, the past is contested terrain in the historians’ present.

Usually our disagreements are confined to scholarly conferences and the pages of journals and books read mostly by fellow historians. On occasion, though, our debates about the past enter the public sphere in a big and noisy way.

That is what is happening now in the wake of a New York Times op-ed (linked below) by the distinguished Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. In his piece, Wilentz argues that historians get it wrong when, as many have and do, they interpret the Constitution as making slavery national. He says that Abraham Lincoln and the former-slave, abolitionist, and African American leader Frederick Douglass had it right when before the Civil War they (and others who agreed) read the Constitution as anti-slavery.

Wilentz’s Op-Ed

Numerous historians, like Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College, have responded to Wilentz’s op-ed with arguments of their own to the contrary.

Rael’s Response to Wilentz

My own view coincides with that of Rael and others who argue that the Constitution indeed made slavery national. That some opponents of slavery subsequently used an antislavery reading of the Constitution to bolster their cause does not mean that the document itself as written and understood by the framers in Philadelphia in 1787 was in fact antislavery. In other words, the distinction between what the Constitution–“the supreme law of the land”–said and provided in support of slavery and subsequent abolitionist interpretations of it is important.

Nor is the debate between Wilentz and other historians merely academic. As the introduction to Rael’s piece by the editors of the We’re History blog point out, the debate is also about current American politics, with Wilentz, a supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, writing his piece in response to Senator Bernie Sanders’ recent remark that the United States was founded on “racist principles.”

What do you think about slavery and the Constitution?



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