Was the Original U.S. Constitution a Racist Document?

Published:September 22, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe

Constitution

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.

Right?

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.

Alas.

IMAGE: The U.S. Constitution (National Archives)

Discussion

6 Comments on “Was the Original U.S. Constitution a Racist Document?”

  1. Lynn

    On a recent visit to Montpeiler, the tour guide told us that when Lafayette visited James Madison post-Constitution he told Madison that if he had known that slavery would still exist in the new country, he would not have helped with the Revolution.

    1. Gee Gee

      I have always believed that the French did not support the notion that slavery should be come a permanent fixture in America.Slavery was a brutal and eternally contradiction to America’s claim for freedom from persecution. It is unfortunate that it became a necessity to the American economic system. The “need” of a consistent cheap form of labor has been a reality throughout history.What most likely offended Lafayette was the systematic and oppressive levels of cruelty and inhumanity.

    2. Virgil akins

      You and I both know that the constitution is a racist document regardless of what anyone says white or black or green or blue regardless of anyone speaking against it or forward it is a racist document and it will remain a racist document as long as it is it exist ask the Native Indians how do they feel about the Constitution of the United States and how it ruined their lives took their land killed their wives and their husbands and their kids and their livestock what more does a piece of paper has to do when it’s born from a racist racist men am I the fool or are you the fool when can a man become property I am truly a judge of character and I know that a judge is a judge but what is he judging himself or another man and I truly say these judges are truly fools enclosed and all wolves and they should be taken out back and shot another man says he’s property and he is truly a fool. No man is property regardless of what another man says no man can ever be another man’s property

  2. Toby Winston

    During the last century socialism was twice utilized as a form of government, once in Germany and Italy and once in the USSR. Both of these instances resulted in disastrous results, including the deaths of almost 100 million people. This does not include the situation in Asia, which has been almost as disastrous.

    Why do you now give any credence whatsoever to people who espouse such doctrines?

    Has the South not paid enough? We have gone through over 150 years of suppression of thought and economic reprisal for the sins of an era in which the Northeast was just as responsible for the institution known as Slavery.

    I notice that Lynn misspelled the name of James Madison’s home, and I doubt the guide who made such audacious statements could have spelled it properly either.

  3. Alan

    SCOTUS, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, said that negroes were not, and could not be, US citizens, and therefore, the protections of the Constitution did not apply to them. Per that decision:

    “They (people of African descent) had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion…

    “But there are two clauses in the Constitution which point directly and specifically to the negro race as a separate class of persons, and show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed…”

    So, it was the Taney Court which said that the Constitution was, in modern day language, “racist.” Of course, we can argue with the Court’s interpretation. But the argument was ensconced in legal canon.

  4. James Mitchell

    The Constitution is an evolving and changable Document. The Founders knew that Society in which they lived would go through a series of changes over time. The Constitution was written primarily to make the adjustments necessary to provide its People with the power to change what was right or wrong with society. This is why the Constitution has served us so well and remains the oldest Government Structure on the planet. That is why I am proud to be the first American to print the American Charters of Freedom in exaxct size and in matching color to the Original Document. Please visit my Website http://www.freedomdocuments.com for more information. Historical Document Reproduction, Inc. P. O. Box , Jasper, Texas 75951

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