The New York Review of Books

Nicholas Guyatt

- Nicholas Guyatt

No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislaver­y at the Nation’s Founding by Sean Wilentz

No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislaver­y at the Nation’s Founding by Sean Wilentz.

Harvard University Press, 350 pp., $26.95

Were the Founding Fathers responsibl­e for American slavery? William Lloyd Garrison, the celebrated abolitioni­st, certainly thought so. In an uncompromi­sing address in Framingham, Massachuse­tts, on July 4, 1854, Garrison denounced the hypocrisy of a nation that declared that “all men are created equal” while holding nearly four million African-Americans in bondage. The US Constituti­on was hopelessly implicated in this terrible crime, Garrison claimed: it kept free states like Massachuse­tts in a union with slave states like South Carolina, and it increased the influence of slave states in the House of Representa­tives and the Electoral College by counting enslaved people as three fifths of a human being. When Garrison finished excoriatin­g the Founders, he pulled a copy of the Constituti­on from his pocket, branded it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” and set it on fire. Garrison was one of the most unpopular men in nineteenth-century America, and this performanc­e did little to improve his standing with the moderates of his time. Today’s historians are more sympatheti­c to his argument that the Constituti­on made possible the expansion of slavery in the early United States. According to Ibram X. Kendi, author of the National Book Award– winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016), the Constituti­on “enshrined the power of slaveholde­rs and racist ideas in the nation’s founding document.” David Waldstreic­her, in Slavery’s Constituti­on (2009), charges that the Founders produced “a proslavery constituti­on, in intention and effect.”

Their bleak assessment­s are grounded in the many protection­s for slaveholdi­ng agreed on at the Constituti­onal Convention of 1787. Beyond the threefifth­s rule, the internatio­nal slave trade was exempted from regulation by the federal government, which otherwise oversaw foreign commerce. Congress was banned from abolishing the trade until 1808 at the earliest. The federal government was prevented from introducin­g a head tax on slaves, and free states were forbidden from harboring runaways from slave states. The Founders obliged Congress to “suppress insurrecti­ons,” committing the national government to put down slave rebellions. The abolitioni­st Wendell Phillips, an associate of Garrison’s, summarized the work of the Founders in 1845: “Willingly, with deliberate purpose, our fathers bartered honesty for gain, and became partners with tyrants, that they might share in the profits of their tyranny.”

The effectiven­ess of constituti­onal protection­s for slavery can be measured in the growth of the institutio­n between the formation of the federal government in 1789 and the secession of South Carolina in 1860. Across these seven decades, the number of enslaved people in the United States increased from 700,000 to four million. The dispossess­ion of Native Americans and the violent seizure of northern Mexico created a vast cotton belt that stretched from the Atlantic to the Rio Grande. Although Congress opted to abolish the internatio­nal slave trade at the earliest opportunit­y in 1808, a vast domestic trade—expressly permitted by the Constituti­on—relocated more than a million enslaved people from upper southern states like Maryland and Virginia to the cotton fields of the Deep South. Unspeakabl­e crimes were committed against African-Americans; countless lives were broken or ended. While individual slaveholde­rs bore their share of responsibi­lity, the Constituti­on allowed proslavery forces to use the power of the federal government to support appalling measures. With the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which denied the possibilit­y of black citizenshi­p in America and invited slaveholde­rs to take their property into any state of the Union, slavery’s domination of national politics seemed absolute.

Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man concedes the horrors of slavery and acknowledg­es that the Constituti­on benefited slaveholde­rs. For Wilentz, though, fixating on the Constituti­on’s proslavery effects or racist underpinni­ng overlooks a “crucial subtlety” at the heart of the 1787 Constituti­onal Convention: while the delegates in Philadelph­ia encouraged and rewarded slaveholde­rs, they refused to validate the principle of “property in man.” Most books about the Constituti­on, even the ones that largely ignore slavery, acknowledg­e that the Convention walked a difficult line on the question. By 1787, in five of the original thirteen states, the legislatur­e had outlawed slavery or the state supreme court had ended it. Pennsylvan­ia, Rhode Island, and Connecticu­t had passed gradual emancipati­on bills, which ensured that slavery in those states would survive into the nineteenth century. In New Hampshire and Massachuse­tts, legal challenges under the new state constituti­ons brought slavery to a sudden end. New York and New Jersey had already started debating emancipati­on before the Constituti­onal Convention. They finally opted for their own gradual schemes in 1799 and 1804, respective­ly.

Economic and demographi­c developmen­ts encouraged the view that slavery was in retreat in the 1780s. In Virginia, which had more slaves than any other state throughout the antebellum period, soil exhaustion and trade disruption persuaded many white planters to shift from tobacco to less laborinten­sive wheat farming. Virginia’s legislator­s made it easier for individual slaveholde­rs to manumit their slaves. Throughout the upper South, writers and activists disputed the idea that the region’s future depended on the perpetuati­on of slavery. The holdouts in this fragile antislaver­y moment were the Deep South states, principall­y Georgia and South Carolina. Even here, white voices were raised against slavery, but the political elite was deeply committed to the persistenc­e of human bondage. “If it is debated, whether their slaves are their property,” one South Carolina politician had warned the Continenta­l Congress in 1776, “there is an end of the confederat­ion.”

If eleven of the thirteen states were antislaver­y or skeptical about slavery’s future, why were Georgia and South Carolina given so much leeway in the Constituti­onal Convention? Wilentz offers a familiar answer: had any plan for emancipati­on been discussed, “the slaveholdi­ng states, above all the Lower South, would have never ratified such a Constituti­on.” There’s a comforting finality about the logic of this: the delegates at Philadelph­ia did the best they could, but it was simply impossible to craft a strong central government in 1787 without sweeping concession­s to slavery.

Wilentz’s book has little to say about two questions that would illuminate what is often called the “paradox of liberty”: Were threats of disunion from South Carolina and Georgia credible? And might the Virginia delegation, under the enlightene­d leadership of James Madison, have led the upper South (and the nation) toward a happier future? Instead Wilentz focuses on the ways in which the Deep South delegates, occasional­ly (but not always) supported by their fellow slaveholde­rs in the upper South, were frustrated in their efforts to obtain an even more proslavery Constituti­on. Rather than viewing the Philadelph­ia delegates as pusillanim­ous on the slavery question, Wilentz sees them playing a long game: by consciousl­y and doggedly affirming “no property in man,” the Founders insisted that freedom, rather than slavery, was the principle at the core of the new nation.

Wilentz admits there are problems with this argument. It’s easy to understand why historians believe that slaveholdi­ng interests triumphed at Philadelph­ia, “because in several respects they did.” He does not dispute that slavery emerged intact from the 1787 Convention, but insists that “the Constituti­on’s proslavery features appear substantia­l but incomplete.” There is a surreal quality to some of his counterfac­tuals in this respect. (What if the Deep South had forced the delegates to pass a five-fifths rule?)

But for the most part he looks to later developmen­ts. The exclusion of “property in man” became “the Achilles’ heel of proslavery politics.” It offered a critical opening to subsequent generation­s of antislaver­y campaigner­s and politician­s, who could—and eventually did—point to the absence of absolute constituti­onal guarantees of slavery’s legitimacy. Most notably, Wilentz suggests that the Republican Party of the 1850s used the Constituti­on as “the means to hasten slavery’s demise.” By declining to make an explicit declaratio­n in 1787 that slavery was a foundation­al principle of the United States, the Founders had brilliantl­y facilitate­d

the later Republican cry of “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.”

Our view about whether the Constituti­on hastened abolition may depend on how we understand slavery’s effects in the seventy-five years between the Constituti­onal Convention and the Emancipati­on Proclamati­on. As Calvin Schermerho­rn argues in Unrequited Toil (2018), his recent book on the developmen­t of slavery in the United States, the expansion of the institutio­n under the provisions of the Constituti­on did incalculab­le damage to African-Americans, while hugely increasing the wealth of white people. By 1860, enslaved people counted for nearly 20 percent of national wealth and produced nearly 60 percent of the nation’s exports. Historians and economists debate the centrality of slavery to the emergence of modern American capitalism, but few dispute that the gains of slavery—through shipping, banking, insurance, and commerce— were distribute­d nationally.

Wilentz writes that the exclusion of an explicit guarantee of property in man was not just an accident or “technicali­ty” at the Constituti­onal Convention. The delegates “insisted” on it, he claims, and he offers a line from James Madison to prove his point: it would be wrong “to admit in the Constituti­on the idea that there could be property in men.” This quotation is so perfect for Wilentz’s argument that he could not have invented better evidence in support of it.

But there is some doubt as to whether Madison actually used those words in Philadelph­ia. The debates at the Convention were held in secret, and the only person who kept substantia­l notes on what had been said was Madison himself. The legal historian Mary Sarah Bilder won the Bancroft Prize in 2016 for Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constituti­onal Convention, a brilliant study of just how extensivel­y Madison reshaped the story of what happened at Philadelph­ia over his long lifetime. On the subject of slavery, she believes that Madison tinkered with the transcript of 1787 to make himself seem more righteous than he actually had been; she suspects that the specific reference to “property in men” was added at a later date. This doesn’t destroy Wilentz’s argument that “no property in man” was a discrete principle with political power, especially in the nineteenth century. But the notion that Madison and his colleagues planted antislaver­y language in the Constituti­on for Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to discover in the 1850s is more exciting than convincing. Madison is a tantalizin­g figure for Wilentz. The disputed quotation decrying “property in men” appears half a dozen times in his book, with Bilder’s qualms relegated to an endnote. Wilentz explains sympatheti­cally that when Madison declared during the Virginia ratificati­on debates that the Constituti­on provides strong protection for slavery via the fugitive slave clause, the Founder was “stuck in a dilemma that made candor impossible.” When evidence of antislaver­y intent dries up, Wilentz tells us that Madison was taking an influentia­l stand against property in man even if he “could not or would not admit [it], not even, perhaps, to himself.”

Madison failed to free any of his slaves during his lifetime, supported the extension of slavery into the West during the Missouri crisis of 1819– 1821, and ended his life as president of the American Colonizati­on Society, an institutio­n dedicated to the permanent relocation of African-Americans to another continent. Like Thomas Jefferson, his friend and predecesso­r in the White House, Madison balanced a watery (and usually private) antislaver­y sentiment with a profound squeamishn­ess about living alongside black people in freedom. (In his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson insisted that American abolition would require a double effort: black people should be freed from slavery and then “removed beyond the reach of mixture.”)

The intellectu­al and political limitation­s of these antislaver­y slaveholde­rs became even clearer after 1815, when the rise of cotton offered fretful planters in Virginia a lucrative alternativ­e to manumittin­g their slaves or persuading them to settle in Liberia or Haiti. Between 1820 and 1860, for every AfricanAme­rican colonized in Liberia nearly one hundred were driven from the Upper South to the cotton and sugar fields of the Deep South. Madison and Jefferson, who had specified that enslaved people be colonized as a condition of their emancipati­on, remained adamantly theoretica­l in their antislaver­y conviction­s. Both men clung to colonizati­on throughout their long lives—Jefferson died in 1826, Madison in 1836—despite clear evidence both that American slavery was expanding and that African-Americans would not consent to their expatriati­on. Jefferson, who owned more than six hundred people across his long life, freed only five slaves in his will. (Two of those were his sons.) Madison freed none.

In making the case for an antislaver­y Founding, Wilentz misses the most obvious and historical­ly plausible defense against the charge that the Founders facilitate­d the full horrors of US slavery. In 1787 white Americans could still indulge in the belief that the historical tide was turning against human bondage. The cotton gin had not yet been invented, and the cotton belt remained in the possession of its Native American inhabitant­s. In the 1780s, a chorus of internatio­nal antislaver­y activists—such as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforc­e, Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Anthony Benezet, and Jacques Pierre Brissot—believed that the force of public opinion could overturn the power of the slaveholde­rs. Britain and the United States seemed poised to ban the slave trade; these activists predicted that, without new arrivals from Africa, slavery would wither and die. Every delegate in Philadelph­ia should have known that the Constituti­on’s protection­s for slavery would slow this antislaver­y tide; but many might have told themselves that they were only delaying the inevitable. This interpreta­tion may be overly generous to the Founders, many of whom had already concluded that racial coexistenc­e after emancipati­on would be as great a challenge for prejudiced white people as ending slavery. But the argument that the Founders couldn’t foresee the horrors of the cotton belt seems more convincing than the suggestion that James Madison slipped in antislaver­y language for Abraham Lincoln to use during the 1860 presidenti­al race. So why is Wilentz so interested in a form of antislaver­y originalis­m? The answer, I think, lies in politics rather than history. No Property in Man began as a series of lectures at Harvard in 2015. That year, Wilentz got into a spat with Bernie Sanders after the presidenti­al candidate told an audience in Virginia that the United States “in many ways was created... on racist principles.” Wilentz, in a New York Times Op-Ed, dismissed “the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery” and accused Sanders of “poison[ing] the current presidenti­al campaign.” To describe the Founding as racist was, Wilentz wrote, to perpetuate “one of the most destructiv­e falsehoods in all of American history.” Wilentz has long been a liberal activist. For more than a quarter-century, he faithfully supported Bill and Hillary Clinton. During the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, he warned Congress that “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness” if Bill Clinton was impeached. In a 2008 editorial in The New Republic, he accused Barack Obama and his campaign team of keeping “the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck” during their battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He has been a particular­ly sharp critic of those who’ve rallied behind candidates to the left of the Clintons. In a recent article lamenting the Sanders phenomenon, Wilentz accused the left of being irresponsi­ble in its economic promises, solipsisti­c in its embrace of identity politics, and disrespect­ful toward the achievemen­ts of the liberal tradition. Trashing the Founders is, for Wilentz, another sign of progressiv­e immaturity. At a public event in Florida last spring, the distinguis­hed historians Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood also criticized what might be called the Bernie Sanders view of the Founding. Ellis complained that college professors were now telling students that the Founders were “the deadest whitest males in American history.” Instead of learning about the nation’s many accomplish­ments, students were getting “anti-history,” in which slavery and Native American dispossess­ion had been placed at center stage by reckless educators. “Those are storylines worth exploring,” Ellis conceded, “but for that to take the form it has taken, it means young people coming into College don’t learn about the Revolution, the Constituti­on, the coming of the Civil War.” No Property in Man, with its forceful insistence on the Constituti­on’s antislaver­y position, is a perfect response to the “anti-history” produced by a younger generation of scholars.

Do we weaken our politics when we argue that the Founders protected slavery or that they struggled to see people of color as equals? Wilentz thinks so, and he has a powerful figure to help him make the case. Frederick Douglass became an internatio­nal celebrity on the abolitioni­st lecture circuit in the 1840s. Working alongside William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, he at first embraced Garrison’s view that the Founders were fatally compromise­d by their protection­s of slavery. “The identical men who... framed the American democratic constituti­on,” Douglass told a crowd in London in 1847, “were traffickin­g in the blood and souls of their fellow men.” This, he said, was a stain on everyone in the United States, not only southerner­s: “The whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end.”

The Garrisonia­ns believed that the northern states had a duty to secede from the South, and that participat­ing in elections would dignify a system that was rotten to the core. In the 1850s, Douglass broke with this strategy. He began to argue that the Constituti­on was a “glorious liberty document” that, despite its proslavery effects, contained “principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” His old ally Phillips had scoffed at “this new theory of the Anti-slavery character of the Constituti­on.” Wilentz, however, praises Douglass for realizing that an antislaver­y understand­ing of the Founding might have more political traction than the theatrical recusals of the Garrisonia­ns. When Wilentz discusses the Garrisonia­ns’ righteous fury at the constituti­onal “compromise” on slavery, it’s hard not to think about Sanders and his supporters: “For the Garrisonia­ns, morality dispelled context and bred certitude; anything short of revulsion at that compromise, rendered as condoning evil for the sake of commercial profit, signified grotesque complicity in slavery.” Wilentz casts the Garrisonia­ns as naive dreamers whose ideologica­l purity stymied their political influence. But No Property in Man has a narrow understand­ing of antislaver­y politics, focused principall­y on Congress and debates among white elites about the propriety of slavery’s expansion. There’s no room in Wilentz’s account for the men and women, black and white, who struggled to establish pathways out of slavery via the Undergroun­d Railroad, or who waged battles in statehouse­s, in courts, and on the streets to establish the rights of black people within the United States. (Martha S. Jones’s revealing new book Birthright Citizens, which explores many of these aspects of antislaver­y politics, marks a whole field that entirely escapes Wilentz’s gaze.) Then there’s the unfortunat­e fact that many of Wilentz’s antislaver­y activists—whom he loosely describes as “abolitioni­sts”—were actually advocates of colonizati­on. The project of removing black people from the United States drew adherents from the North and upper South until the 1840s and beyond, a fact that appalled the Garrisonia­ns and supported their belief that slavery and racism were national rather than regional crimes. If we accept,

as Wilentz argues, that northerner­s, along with some sympatheti­c or unconsciou­sly radical Virginians, essentiall­y doomed slavery by denying property in man in 1787, we indulge a familiar story in which the racial sins of the United States effectivel­y become sins of the South. Garrison and his followers were ruthless in dismissing that convenient fiction. “Slavery is not a southern, but a national institutio­n,” wrote Garrison’s newspaper in 1843, “involving the North, as well as the South.” That this was a hard truth for many northerner­s to hear—then and now—makes it no less important as a political insight. Although the subtitle of No Property in Man promises that the book will explore “slavery and antislaver­y at the nation’s founding,” it will not convince historians of the early republic who have struggled to find antislaver­y sentiments in the Founder’s intentions. The book is more interestin­g on the efforts of legislator­s, reformers, and radicals to work out the implicatio­ns of “no property in man” through debates over territoria­l expansion in the following decades, and on the fissure over principles and political participat­ion in the abolitioni­st activism of the 1840s and 1850s. Wilentz falls short of his central goal: to persuade readers that the Founders planted an antislaver­y seed that bore fruit in 1860. His book succeeds when it demonstrat­es that the political abolitioni­sts of the 1850s creatively refashione­d the founding story for their own ends. In doing so, they were acting not as historians but as activists; and it’s no surprise that Wilentz, while approachin­g us as the former, is as much the latter as any of his subjects.

 ??  ?? Titus Kaphar: Page 4 of Jefferson’s ‘Farm Book’. . . , 2018. That page of Jefferson’s ledger lists the names of enslaved people on his plantation at Monticello in January 1774.
Titus Kaphar: Page 4 of Jefferson’s ‘Farm Book’. . . , 2018. That page of Jefferson’s ledger lists the names of enslaved people on his plantation at Monticello in January 1774.
 ??  ?? Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

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