Prof. Sean Wilentz speaks about new book on slavery and the Constitution

Professor Sean Wilentz Photo courtesy of the Department of History website.

“There is no other more central or urgent topic in our history than slavery,” University history professor Sean Wilentz stated at a Sept. 28 panel discussion on his most recent book, “No Property in Man: Slavery and Anti-Slavery at the Nation’s Founding.”

Standing in front of a packed audience in 120 Lewis Library, Wilentz described the work as the cornerstone of a larger project which aims to study the history of slavery from America’s founding to the beginning of the Civil War. He started this project at the beginning, with a book — published in September by the Harvard University Press — that specifically examines the role of slavery in shaping the United States Constitution.

Wilentz was joined by Allen C. Guelzo, history professor at Gettysburg College, and Rutgers University law professor Earl M. Maltz. Their conversation was moderated by Bronwen McShea, 2018–19 associate research scholar at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Wilentz’s book rewalks a well-treaded line in American history. Wilentz, though, argues against the prevailing view among historians that the Constitution fundamentally endorsed slavery.

“In my interpretation, that reading misconstrues the basic documents and debates, as recorded in particular by James Madison,” he argued. “It slights the importance of anti-slavery politics and anti-slavery thought on the framers.”

Instead, Wilentz identified the core of the Constitution’s position on slavery within a phrase placed in his book’s title: “no property in man.”

“With all the concessions that the framers made to the slaveholders, the majority of that convention deliberately refused to acknowledge slavery’s legitimacy by refusing to acknowledge the cornerstone of slavery’s legality, the right of property in man,” Wilentz said.

The founders refused to state that, under federal law, slaves could legally be considered property.

“If they had done so, they would have rendered the federal government, the new government they were creating, powerless to limit the expansion of slavery into new areas under that government’s jurisdiction,” Wilentz said.

To expand on his argument, Wilentz turned to the 1830s and 40s. He described the emergence of radical abolitionist groups and figures, such as William Lloyd Garrison, who — along with Southern political figures like John C. Calhoun — advanced the view that the Constitution was fundamentally a pro-slavery document.

“But there was another view,” Wilentz said, one held by figures like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. This interpretation held that the framers had deliberately excluded the idea of property from federal law in order to limit slavery’s expansion and ultimately lead to its termination.

“Upon close re-examination of the records of the federal convention in 1787 and subsequent debates, it is this view I believe, and the words I believe are contestable, which emerges as the most accurate,” Wilentz said.

With Lincoln and Madison in mind, Wilentz re-conceptualized property as the central issue in slavery and the Constitution.

“To understand this issue, we need a little context about the politics at the time of the founding,” he added.

Wilentz stressed that anti-slavery beliefs were very new and very fierce, in the 1870s. Slave owners considered the right to own people as important as the right to own a house, and slavery opponents refused to allow the principle of humans as property to become ingrained in the Constitution.

“The heart of the book is about that battle,” Wilentz said.

Maltz then took the podium and praised Wilentz’s work, expressing his agreement with its central argument.

“The men who came to Philadelphia in 1787 did not come to the Convention for the purpose of addressing slavery,” Maltz argued. “They considered it essentially as a matter for each state to consider on its own terms.”

In agreement with Wilentz, Maltz stressed the deep divisions between slaveholders and non-slaveholders at the Convention, with many delegates going to great lengths to avoid directly addressing it.

Maltz did voice his disagreement with one of Wilentz’s arguments: the creation of the Electoral College, which he described as possibly the most decisively pro-slavery element of the Convention. According to Wilentz, the Electoral College reflected an acknowledgement that Southern leaders were unlikely to win the presidency by a purely popular vote.

“Professor Wilentz may well have overstated the significance of the rejection of the popular vote model,” Maltz said. “Even if Electoral Votes had been allocated according to the free population, admittedly different from eligible voters, Southerners are very likely to have won all of the elections to which he refers. The only exception is the election of 1800.”

Maltz also said that the popular vote model was always a “non-starter” at the convention, since it was opposed by both the Southern states and the small Northern states.

“When considered as a whole, the system established for electing the president cannot be said as being pro-slavery in any meaningful sense,” he concluded.

Taking the podium, Guelzo also stressed that the Constitution was created at an important historical moment, in which ingrained institutions — such as monarchy and slavery — were beginning to be questioned.

“However, it is also true that what makes the Constitution remarkable is not that, at such a moment, it contained provisions that seemed to offer guarantees to slavery,” said Guelzo, “but that it contained so few of them.”

Given this lack of provisions, the Constitution may be construed as a document which built on the growing Enlightenment trend towards abolitionism.

“Taken at its worst light, however, which is how Finkleton and many modern Garrisons see it, the Constitution is a deeply flawed document which for decades was the protection of an abomination,” he said.

Guelzo disagreed, however, comparing this argument to claiming that the Titanic was built to crash into an iceberg.

“The intentions of the Constitution’s authors, and the subsequent wresting of control of government by slaveholders, were two very different matters, to be confused at our peril,” he stated.

He noted that the debates over slavery were “lengthy, bitter, and far from satisfactory for those who sought explicit protections of slavery.”

The panel, held on Friday, Sept. 28 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in 120 Lewis Library, was sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. The next program in the series, “A Morning with the Madison Program,” will be held during the She Roars Alumnae Event, at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6.

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