Yeah, probably—at least according to the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. During a question-and-answer session after his speech last week at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Sanders noted that the United States “was created—and I’m sorry to have to say this—on racist principles,” although “we have come a long way as a nation.”
The conservative National Review pounced:
It is unfortunate, however, that Sanders felt the need to attach his reminder to a dangerous falsehood. The American escutcheon is indeed sullied by original sin, but that sin is largely one of omission rather than commission. Flawed as it is, the United States was not founded on inadequate or abominable or “racist” principles, but upon extraordinary, revolutionary, and unusually virtuous propositions that, tragically, have all too often been ignored.
Later in the piece, the writer, Charles C. W. Cooke, acknowledges that in spite of consensus at the Constitutional Convention that ran counter to slavery, the final document compromised and acknowledged that people could be property.
Cooke’s argument, then, at least seems to be self-refuting. But he has found an ally, unpredictably, in the liberal historian—and, not irrelevantly, the Hillary Clinton supporter—Sean Wilentz. Echoing Cooke, he took to the New York Times to call Sanders’s claim “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.”
The Constitutional Convention not only deliberately excluded the word “slavery,” but it also quashed the proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution, and so prevented enshrining the racism that justified slavery.
The property question was the key controversy. The delegates could never have created a federal union if they had given power to the national government to meddle in the property laws of the slave states. Slavery would have to be tolerated as a local institution. This hard fact, though, did not sanction slavery in national law, as a national institution, as so many critics presume. This sanction was precisely what the proslavery delegates sought with their failed machinations to ensure, as [James] Madison wrote, that “some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.” Most of the framers expected slavery to gradually wither away. They would do nothing to obstruct slavery’s demise.
It’s interesting to see the way the debate has moved from whether the United States was founded “on racist principles” (Sanders) to whether it was founded on the explicit sanction of slavery as a national institution (Wilentz). Sanders might argue that the Constitution acknowledged slavery but did not prohibit it, even though it could have—that’s racist! While Wilentz might respond that neither was the Constitution as pro-slavery as it might have been.
One could agree with the arguments of both men, in other words, and still be on hard ground, historically.
I’m probably simplifying both arguments. If you’re interested in reading more, the excellent history site We’re History has posted an essay from Patrick Rael, a history professor at Bowdoin College, in which he suggests that “Wilentz badly misinterprets the antislavery sentiment” at the Convention.
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.
It’s that last point that rings so true for me. As Ta-Nehisi Coates is fond of saying, racism in U.S. history is not a bug but a feature. If the good intentions of men like James Madison—men, we sometimes forget, who themselves owned slaves and did nothing to free them—were what mattered most, one suspects that a civil war would have been unnecessary, that post-war lynching might have been avoided, that everything from the Danville Riot in 1883 to the Danville civil rights demonstrations eighty years later would have been rendered moot.
IMAGE: The U.S. Constitution (National Archives)