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.

U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

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[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.