Bernie Sanders, at his speech at Liberty University, made the rather banal point that the U.S. is a “nation which in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back on racist principles, that’s a fact.” Sanders is also polling well against Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. Enter Sean Wilentz, hack pundit:
THE Civil War began over a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery — property in humans — in national law? Southern slaveholders, inspired by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, charged that it did and that the Constitution was proslavery; Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it. After Lincoln’s election to the presidency, 11 Southern states seceded to protect what the South Carolina secessionists called their constitutional “right of property in slaves.”
The war settled this central question on the side of Lincoln and Douglass. Yet 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. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”
But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.
Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.
Wilentz’s strategy here is to make a narrow claim — the Constitution did not make slavery a federal institution — that is technically defensible but not actually responsive to Sanders’s point. What’s relevant to Sanders’s argument is whether the Constitution protected the institution of slavery in the states, and the answer to this question is quite clearly “yes.” In addition to the protections that Wilentz acknowledges and handwaves away because proslavery framers got only some and not all of what they wanted — the 3/5ths clause, the Fugitive Slave clause, the prohibition on bans on the international slave trade until 1808 — both sides assumed that the electoral college and House or Representatives, augmented by the 3/5th clause, would protect slavery in the states. It is true, as Wilentz says, that the Senate ultimately became a crucial bulwark of the slave power — but this is because both sides were wrong in predicting sectional population growth. The Constitution explicitly and implicitly protected slavery in the states in multiple ways. It didn’t make slavery national, but Sanders isn’t claiming otherwise.
In addition, Wilentz’s characterization of Lincoln is very misleading. As most of you know, Lincoln accepted that the federal government could not interfere with slavery in the states (as opposed to the territories), a principle he maintained even in the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s views support Sanders rather than undermining him. Lincoln was fond of assertions that the Constitution was fundamentally antislavery, but this politically useful rhetoric is not serious history. The Civil War Amendments transformed American constitutionalism; they didn’t, as Wilentz implies, redundantly state principles that were already in the Constitution.
And, of course, Sanders isn’t just talking about slavery but white supremacy. And when you look at evidence like citizenship laws, the franchise, the formal and informal disabilities placed on free blacks throughout the country, etc. etc. his point is undeniable. And, of course, we really should mention Wilentz’s man Andrew Jackson here.
Why Wilentz continues to destroy his reputation to be Hillary Clinton’s op-ed enforcer is beyond me.