Gordon Wood Strikes Again!

Slavery debates

I love reading Gordon Wood book reviews.  I don’t always agree with him, but sometimes I do.  Whether I agree with him or not, I must admit that I sometimes take guilty pleasure in watching him whip academic historians into a frenzy with his long and provocative reviews that often challenge historiographical orthodoxy.

At the age of eighty-five he is still going strong, as evidenced from his recent review of books by Sean Wilentz and Andrew Delbanco at The New Republic.

I like Wood’s reviews so much because he always frames them in a larger historiographical conversations.  His reviews were invaluable to me in graduate school as I tried to make sense of hundreds of books I needed to read for my comprehensive exams.

In this latest review, Wood shows how Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding and Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War challenge what he calls a “Neo-Garrisonian” view of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

In October 2017, President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, declared that “a lack of an ability to compromise” brought on the Civil War. This remark outraged a number of historians, who told The Washington Post they thought it “strange,” “highly provocative,” and “kind of depressing,” something that was out of touch with current historical research. Kelly’s interpretation carried echoes of a revisionist explanation of the causes of the Civil War that was popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Commonly known as the “blundering generation” interpretation, it held that the sectional conflict arose not from a fundamental disagreement over slavery but from the squabbling of politicians whose demagoguery and fanaticism eventually undermined the political system.

Few historians pay attention any more to the blundering generation interpretation. Not only did it play into the hands of Southern apologists, by implying that slavery was not the fundamental source of the conflict, but it also played down the substantial differences between the societies of the North and South that slavery had created. Most academic historians today no longer think of the abolitionists as fanatical agitators, stirring up hostility between the sections. Instead, they have become the heroes of their narratives. Indeed, many have come to accept the view of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that America’s entire political system was riddled with the evils of slavery, beginning with its founding document. The Constitution, Garrison declared, was “a covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.”

In a like manner, many present-day historians have contended that the border between the slave South and the free North was not as sharp as we are apt to think. Not only were the North and South economically interdependent, but they shared in the exploitative nature of American capitalism. Despite the fact that the Southern slaveholding planters thought of themselves as anything but bourgeois capitalists, their slave system, scholars such as Sven Beckert and Edward E. Baptist now claim, was just as capitalistic as the industrial system of the North. Northerners as well as Southerners are now seen as thoroughly implicated in the terrible business of slavery, morally as well as economically. It was not just the South that was morally flawed; the North was just as racist, just as antagonistic to black people, as the South.

This is all part of a determined effort by current scholars to ensure that the North bear its share of blame for slavery and for race relations in the nation. They emphasize that Northern delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were equally involved with Southerners in the compromises that protected slavery in the Constitution and helped to make it “an agreement with hell.” Northerners agreed to the three-fifths representation of slaves in the Congress and the Electoral College. And, most lamentably, they accepted the clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution that declared that persons held in service or labor in one state who escaped to another state had to be returned to those to whom such service or labor was due.

In all their subsequent compromises over slavery, white Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, displayed what Ta-Nehisi Coates today calls a “craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people.” The North tended to appease the South at every turn and effectively tolerated Southern dominance of the national government during the antebellum period. Present-day scholars suggest that the North bears nearly as much responsibility for the persistence of slavery as the South. That’s why no one should try to claim that North and South were two distinct societies. The whole nation was guilty.

This is the gist of prevailing neo-Garrisonian scholarship dealing with antebellum America. In different and subtle ways both Sean Wilentz’sNo Property in Manand Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War seek to challenge this scholarship—but not return to the revisionist interpretation of the mid-twentieth century. Both Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, and Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia, accept without question that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict. They offer no apology whatsoever for the Confederacy and its system of racial slavery. But both do aim to correct and refine what they believe are some of the crudities in the current interpretations, which have had the unintended effects of reviving a Southern view of the Constitution and of blurring in their own ways the differences between the societies of the North and the South.

Read the rest here.

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