In a New York Times op-ed, Princeton University History Professor Sean Wilentz disputed claims that United States Constitution was a pro-slavery document. He argued, "Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it."
But what Wilentz was really about was invoking the names of Lincoln and Douglass to attack the credibility of Vermont Senator and Democratic Party Presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders. Wilentz charged, "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." He also accused Sanders of perpetuating a myth that that "threatens to poison the current presidential campaign" when he stated the United States "in many ways was created, and I'm sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that's a fact."
Wilentz may be a historian, but he was also writing as a political partisan. He has close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton and was active in Hillary's 2008 campaign for President, facts that should have been mentioned in the article, but were not. Wilentz called the beliefs about race and American history shared by Sanders "one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history." "Far from a proslavery compact of 'racist' principles," Wilentz wants us to accept his view that "the Constitution was based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of property in humans."
However, unlike Wilentz, Bernie Sanders made no claims about the meaning of the Constitution and it is a fact that when the Constitution was written there were approximately 700,000 enslaved Africans in the new nation, including Africans enslaved on the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
Wilentz claims to agree with Frederick Douglass' view that the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document. But Douglass did not believe the Constitution was an anti-slavery document either. His position was much more nuanced. In 1849, Douglass wrote in The North Star:
"The Constitution of the United States, standing alone, and construed only in the light of its letter, without reference to the opinions of the men who framed and adopted it, or to the uniform, universal and undeviating practice of the nation under it, from the time of its adoption until now, is not a pro-slavery instrument."
But in the same article Douglass also wrote:
"[W]e hold it to be a most cunningly-devised and wicked compact, demanding the most constant and earnest efforts of the friends of righteous freedom for its complete overthrow . . . We have to do with facts, rather than theory. The Constitution is not an abstraction. It is a living breathing fact, exerting a mighty power over the nation of which it is the bond of the Union. Had the Constitution dropped down from the blue overhanging sky, upon a land uncursed by slaver, and without an interpreter, although some difficulty might have occurred in applying its manifold provisions, yet so cunningly is it framed, that no one would have imagined that it recognized or sanctioned slavery. But having a terrestrial, and not a celestial origin, we find no difficulty in ascertaining its meaning in all the parts which we allege to relate to slavery."
Douglass' position on the Constitution and slavery gradually shifted over the next decade, but as late as 1859 he considered supporting John Brown in open rebellion against the Constitution and slavery.
In an 1860 speech, Douglass asserted, "If the South has made the Constitution bend to the purposes of slavery, let the North now make that instrument bend to the cause of freedom and justice." By that point Douglass basically read the Constitution as legally neutral on the issue of slavery, a document that could be used to overturn the institution, just as Southern enslavers used it defend slavery.
However, Douglass clearly believed the United States was a nation born in racism. In an 1852 July 4th commemoration speech delivered in Rochester, New York, Douglass declared:
"What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
Frederick Douglass also wrote:
"Let us then argue the question with all the coolness and clearness of which an learned fugitive slave, smarting under the wrongs inflicted by this unholy Union, is capable. We cannot talk 'lawyer like' about law -- about its emanating from the bosom of God! -- about government, and of its seat in the great heart of the Almighty! -- nor can we, in connection with such an ugly matter-of-fact looking thing as the United States Constitution, bring ourselves to split hairs about the alleged legal rule of interpretation." He definitely would have sided with Bernie Sanders, not Sean Wilentz, on this issue.
By the way, Sean Wilentz has made this kind of nasty political attack before. In 2008, while campaigning for Hillary, he accused her leading opponent, Barack Obama, of "manipulative illusion," "distortions, and polluting polluted the primary contest with "the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988." Deploying guilt by association techniques reminiscent of 1950s McCarthyism, he also blamed liberal intellectuals for failing to critically examine Obama's supposed ties to people Wilentz did not like.
I guess I am one of the left intellectuals Wilentz disparaged in the New York Times article. I confess I also gave a donation to Bernie Sander's campaign. However, Bernie, Frederick Douglass and I are not the only ones who trace racism in the United States back to slavery and the compromises made in the drafting of the United States Constitution. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to the United States in the 1830s, a man Sean Wilentz has written about on a number of occasions, argued that democracy in the United States for White people was based on the discriminatory treatment of Blacks.
I agree with Frederick Douglass that although the United States had its roots deep in racism and the Constitution was designed to protect the institution of slavery, the words of the Constitution can be read in different ways. This permits flexibility in interpretation and the use of the Constitution to challenge injustice. I also agree with former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan that Americans need to read the Constitution as a living document now imbedded with the values of our time, not the values of time long past when it was written by men who owned other people.