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.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

FugitiveAndrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.  While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio.  I recommend it.

Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment.  Here is a taste:

With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have at­tained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.

Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was con­ceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.

The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.

Read the rest here.

“Show me how to think and how to choose.”

delbancoThis quote comes from the 1850 diary of a student at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.  Andrew Delbanco writes about in his 2013 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.  I highly recommend this book.

A few years ago, I came across a manuscript diary…from 1850–kept by a student at a small Methodist college, Emory and Henry, in southwest Virginia.  One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry in his journal: “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.”  That sentence, poised somewhere between a wish and a plea, sounds archaic today.  For many if not most students, God is no longer the object of the plea; or if he is, they probably do not attend a college where everyone worships the same god in the same way.  Many American colleges began as denominational institutions; but today religion is so much a matter of private conscience, and the number of punishable infractions so small (even rules against the academic sin of plagiarism are only loosely enforced), that few college presidents would presume to intervene in the private lives of students for the purposes of doctrinal or moral correction.  The era of spiritual authority belonging to college is long gone.  And yet I have never encountered a better formulation–“show me how to think and how to choose”–of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others (pp.16-17).

Andrew Delbanco on the Humanities Crisis

Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University, says that it is time to forget about the “either/or” discourse that “pits science against humanities.”  The humanities are essential, he argues, to bringing “value” to the so-called STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mary).  Here are some of the world’s most pressing problems that must be solved through a combination of humanities and science:

How can the imperative of economic development be reconciled with the need to limit climate change?

What does national sovereignty mean in a world where diseases, pollutants, and terrorists cross national borders at will?

Are there universal human rights that transcend conflicting claims of particular cultural traditions

How should limited resources be distributed in order to provide opportunity and hope to young people, while treating the elderly with dignity and respect?

What are a country’s obligations to refugees fleeing from persecution, poverty, or strife elsewhere?
How should we balance individual liberty and collective security?

Delbanco writes:

In answering such questions, advances in science and technology (for example, new methods of energy production, surveillance, or online learning) will have a key role to play. But moral and ethical questions never yield fully to technical solutions; they also require an understanding of humanity’s social and cultural heritage. Science can help us to attain the life we want, but it cannot teach us what kind of life is worth wanting.

In short, each side in the current education debate is half right. As human affairs become increasingly complex and morally exigent, future generations will need both scientific and humanistic learning – and they will need them more than ever.


Read the rest here.