Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery 

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR) recently has been criticizing The 1619 Project ‘of the New York Times. The Project, he said, was “a racially divisive, revisionist account . . . that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded” although slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”[1] The latter comment was made by the Senator in a recent interview by Tucker Carlson of FoxNews, in which Cotton claimed to draw support from prominent American historians, one of whom was Sean Wilentz of Princeton University.

Wilentz’ Response to Cotton[2]

Although four other American historians and I have “fundamental publicized objections to the project, . . . these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.”

“Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery ‘was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’ His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.”

“None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a ‘necessary evil.’ Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would ‘never concur in upholding domestic slavery,’ that ‘nefarious institution’ based on ‘the most cruel bondages’—’the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.’ The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.”

“James Madison, the most influential delegate at the convention, explicitly repudiated the idea of building the union on slavery, stating that it would be ‘wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.’ Though himself a slaveholder, Madison wanted to guarantee that the Constitution, while it might tolerate slavery in the states where it existed, would neither enshrine human bondage in national law nor recognize it as legitimate.”

“A minority of the Framers, from the lower South, disagreed, but they believed slavery was no evil at all. ‘If slavery be wrong,’ Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared, ‘it is justified by the example of all the world.’ Far from a necessary evil, Pinckney thought slavery was a necessary good, as it had been for time immemorial. ‘In all ages,’ he claimed, ‘one half of mankind have been slaves.’”

“There was, to be sure, one delegate who resembled Senator Cotton’s description: Pinckney’s cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, also from South Carolina. At one point in the convention debates, a perturbed Cotesworth Pinckney registered a complaint, seeming to desire, Madison noted, ‘that some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.’ That would have based the Union firmly on the constitutional right of slavery. And Cotesworth Pinckney did come close to calling slavery a necessary evil, noting that without it the Carolina economy could not survive (which was technically correct). But the convention majority, far from agreeing with anything he said, dismissed his objection out of hand.”

“The Constitution was hardly an antislavery document. Through fierce debates and by means of backroom deals, the lower South slaveholders managed to win compromises that offered some protection to slavery in the states: the notorious three-fifths clause giving an allotment of House seats and Electoral College votes based on a partial counting of enslaved persons; a twenty-year delay in authorizing Congress to abolish the nation’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade; and a fugitive slave clause. Most importantly, the Constitution by implication barred the new federal government from directly interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed.”

“But neither did the Constitution, as Senator Cotton wrongly claims, establish slavery as necessary to the Union. It’s true that a few proslavery delegates threatened that their states would refuse to join the Union unless their demands were met. This occurred with particular force with regard to the Atlantic slave trade. A majority of convention delegates wanted to empower the national government to abolish the horrific trade, striking the first blow against it anywhere in the Atlantic world in the name of a sovereign state. Appalled, the lower South delegates, led by South Carolina’s oligarchs, threatened to bolt if the convention touched the slave trade in any way, but the majority called their bluff.”

“In the end, the proslavery delegates carved out the compromise that prevented abolishing the trade until 1808, salvaging a significant concession, though there could be little doubt that the trade was doomed. Even with this compromise, the leading Pennsylvania abolitionist Benjamin Rush hailed the slave trade clause as ‘a great point obtained from the Southern States.’ His fellow Pennsylvanian and a delegate to convention, James Wilson, went so far as to say that the Constitution laid ‘the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.’”

“History, of course, proved Wilson wrong—but not completely wrong. With the rise of the cotton economy, based on the invention of the cotton gin, which Wilson could not have foreseen, American slavery was far from stymied, but grew to become the mightiest and most expansive slavery regime on earth, engulfing further territories—including Cotton’s own Arkansas.”

“The Framers’ compromises over slavery had little to do with it, however. The problem was not primarily constitutional but political: so long as a substantial number of Northerners remained either complacent about slavery’s future, indifferent to the institution’s oppression, or complicit in the growth of the new cotton kingdom, the Constitution would permit the spread of human bondage.”

“Even so, in fact, the Constitution contained powerful antislavery potential. By refusing to recognize slavery in national law, the Framers gave the national government the power to regulate or ban slavery in areas under its purview, notably the national territories not yet constituted as separate states. The same year that the Framers met, the existing Congress banned slavery from the existing territories north of the Ohio River under the Northwest Ordinance, a measure reflected in the Constitution, which the new Congress quickly affirmed when it met in 1789. Later antislavery champions, including Abraham Lincoln, always considered the Northwest Ordinance to be organic to the Constitution; proslavery advocates came to regard it as an illegitimate nullity.”

“In time, as antislavery sentiment built in the North, the condition of slavery in the territories and in connection with the admission of new states became the major flashpoint of conflict, from the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821 to the guerrilla warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ Proslavery champions like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina invented an argument that denied the Congress any power over slavery in the territories; Lincoln and his fellow Republicans refuted that argument. And upon Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, this constitutional issue was enough to spark the secession that led to the Civil War and Emancipation.”

Senator Cotton has some mistaken things to say about that history, too. The Framers, he asserts, built the Constitution ‘in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.’ This absurdly imputes to the Framers powers of clairvoyance. Although Lincoln sometimes suggested that the Framers had purposefully designed slavery’s abolition—even Lincoln could wishfully exaggerate—the Constitution hardly ensured slavery’s doom. It took Lincoln’s and the antislavery Republicans’ concerted political efforts to vindicate the Constitution’s antislavery elements that set the stage for what Lincoln in his ‘House Divided’ speech of 1858 called ‘ultimate extinction.’”

“Far from establishing a Union based on what Senator Cotton calls the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery, the Founders fought bitterly over human enslavement, producing a document that gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise. The slaveholders, unable to abide that power, eventually seceded in an effort to form a new slaveholders’ republic, with a new Constitution built entirely on slavery: its cornerstone, as the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declaimed, was ‘the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.’”

“As far as a Union founded on the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery is concerned, Cotton appears unaware of how profoundly the Constitution of the United States of America differed from that of the Confederate States of America.”

Wilentz’ Longer Account of the U.S. History of Slavery[3]

In November 2019, Wilentz, delivering the fourth annual Lecture in honor of Philip Roth, drew upon the novelist’s insight that history was “the relentless unfolding of the unforeseen” or “where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page [of history] as inevitable.” For “the centrality of slavery to American history,” Wilentz says, “the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone or by American antislavery but in their conflict” and “few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.”

This was so even though “the ideals that propelled the American Revolution shared crucial origins with the ideals that propelled antislavery. Yet American slavery did not die out as most expected” with “revolutionary America” as a “hotbed of antislavery politics.” In fact, slavery “expanded, turning the American South into the most dynamic and ambitious slavery regime in the world” with “slaveowners [stiffening ] their resolve to affirm their property rights in human beings” and coming “perilously close to establishing an American empire of slavery.”

Conclusion

These ideas of Wilentz help us understand why he and the other four prominent American historians dissented from at least one of the major premises of The Project of 1619, which will be discussed in a future post.[4]

Although I was a history major many years ago at Grinnell College, I do not have the intimate knowledge of the slavery and antislavery conflicts that are discussed by Professor Welentz. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he is overreacting to Senator Cotton’s comment.

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia convened in 1787 to consider whether and how to amend the existing Articles of Confederation after Alexander Hamilton’s report on the  unsuccessful attempt to do so at the Annapolis Conference of 1786 coupled with his forceful criticism of those Articles and recommendation of the calling of a convention to “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”[5]

For the first two months or so of the Constitutional Convention there were debates between delegates from large and small states, between those favoring states-rights and those wanting a strong national government. “By the end of June the convention seemed in danger of dissolving, with nothing accomplished.” That, however, was prevented when the Convention accepted a proposal by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut (“the Great Compromise”) for equal representation of the states in the Senate and proportional representation by population in the House. Thereafter other compromises were reached, including counting three-fifths of the slaves for representation in the House.[6]

In other words, many compromises were necessary in order to obtain agreement on the new Constitution before it could be submitted to the states for ratification. Some of those compromises accommodated slavery while others did not. As Wilentz said, the Constitution “gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise.” In short, compromises with the evil of slavery were necessary in order to create the new Constitution.

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[1] Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020);  Senator Cotton Continues Criticism of The 1619 Project, dwkcommenataries.com (Aug. 10, 2020).

[2] Wilentz, What Tom Cotton Gets So Wrong About Slavery and the Constitution, N.Y. Review of Books (Aug. 3, 2020).

[3] Wilentz, American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen,’ N.Y. Review of Books (Nov. 19, 2019).

[4]  See Historian Wilentz and New York Times Editor Exchange Views About The 1619 Project, dwkcommentaries.com (forthcoming Aug. –, 2020).

[5] Williams, Current & Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], pp. 170-72  (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1959.) (This is my book from college and comments from others with more detailed knowledge of the Constitutional Convention are solicited.)

[6] Id. at 172-77.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

2 thoughts on “Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery ”

  1. Duane, A good informative piece, thank you. It is things such as this article that show why those who seek to remove all vestiges of the Confederacy are wrong. While slavery was an evil thing, we should have reminders lest we forget what took place. It was an unsavory part of our history but it is part of our history and should never be forgotten. Only by being constantly reminded of that part of our past, will we strive to prevent it from ever happening again.

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