Sean Wilentz is Still Getting Heat

The latest historian to challenge Wilentz’s recent New York Times op-ed piece on the U.S. Constitution and slavery is David Waldstreicherdistinguished professor of history at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and the author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification.

Here is a taste of Waldstreicher’s piece at The Atlantic:

The three-fifths clause, which states that three-fifths of “all other persons” (i.e. slaves) will be counted for both taxation and representation, was a major boon to the slave states. This is well known; it’s astounding to see Wilentz try to pooh-pooh it. No, it wasn’t counting five-fifths, but counting 60 percent of slaves added enormously to slave-state power in the formative years of the republic. By 1800, northern critics called this phenomenon “the slave power” and called for its repeal. With the aid of the second article of the Constitution, which numbered presidential electors by adding the number of representatives in the House to the number of senators, the three-fifths clause enabled the elections of plantation masters Jefferson in 1800 and Polk in 1844.

Just as importantly, the tax liability for three-fifths of the slaves turned out to mean nothing. Sure the federal government could pass a head tax, but it almost never did. It hardly could when the taxes had to emerge from the House, where the South was 60 percent overrepresented. So the South gained political power, without having to surrender much of anything in exchange.

Read the entire article.

Peter Sagal Responds to Sean Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution

We did a post on this earlier today.  

It seems that more and more smart people are weighing in against Sean Wilentz.  Here is a letter to the editor published in today’s New York Times by Peter Sagal, host of the PBS show Constitution USA:

Prof. Sean Wilentz’s essay arguing that the Constitution was not built on slavery (“Lincoln and Douglass Had It Right,” Op-Ed, Sept. 16) is profoundly mistaken.

That the Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia wanted more than they got doesn’t matter, especially not to the millions of slaves whose misery continued. What matters is the text of the Constitution as ratified, which clearly and obviously sanctions slavery, in the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave clause.

The three-fifths clause was not, as Professor Wilentz argues, one of the “consolation prizes” for the slave states. By allowing Southern states to count their slaves at all for purposes of representation, while denying those slaves all other civil or human rights, the Constitution granted slave holders magnified political power, while creating an incentive to acquire more slaves.

Professor Wilentz ignores (as many do) one of the most sinister aspects of the three-fifths clause. Electoral votes are granted to states based on the number of representatives in the House. Thus, the South had disproportionate power in presidential elections as well.

Race-based slavery was this nation’s original sin. We were born with it in our charter. As Lincoln suggested, that sin could not be expurgated “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was the United States "Created on Racist Principles?"

In his recent visit to Liberty University, Bernie Sanders said that the United States “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

On Tuesday night in my online Gilder-Lehrman graduate course on colonial North America, I told my students that Sanders was correct. We spent the class studying colonial Virginia and discussed how the colony became a slave society near the end of the seventeenth century.  At the end of the lecture I took a cue from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and reminded my students about the ways the wealth generated by slavery in this tobacco colony enabled Virginia planters such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others to be in a position to articulate some of America’s greatest statements about liberty and freedom.  Irony indeed.

Then today I read Sean Wilentz’s New York Times op-ed “Constitutionally, Slavery Is No National Institution.”  (It appears to stem from his recent Constitution Day Lecture at Princeton). Here is a taste:

…the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.

Read the entire piece to see how Wilentz supports his argument.  It is a rather odd piece. First, Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution when Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.  I think the Vermont senator meant to say, along with Morgan and others, that the roots of the United States are intricately bound with slavery and what today we call “racism.”  

Second, even if we do limit Sanders’s comment about racism and the American founding to the United States Constitution, it very hard to say that racism and slavery were not a part of the creation of this founding document.

Several scholars and historians have already replied to Wilentz.  Here are four:

Lawrence Goldstone at The New Republic

H. Robert Baker at Tropics of Meta

Julia Azari at Vox

Kevin Gannon at The Junto

Riffing on a Few Tweets From the "Historians and Their Publics" Plenary Session

Salon D was packed out yesterday afternoon for the plenary session of the Organization of American Historians: “Historians and Their Publics.”  OAH president Alan Kraut moderated a session that included  Spencer Crew, Sean Wilentz, Jill Lepore, and Shola Lynch.  Rather than write a report of the panel, I thought I would use a few of my tweets to frame some thoughts.  Here goes:


TWEET: “Live tweeting plenary session ‘Historians and Their Publics.’ Kristof op-ed framing the discussion so far.”
As might be expected, Kristof’s New York Times op-ed “Professors, We Need You” was on everyone’s mind. Kraut used the piece to frame the conversation. I am on record saying that Kristof’s piece is on the mark, but I would really like to know what Lepore thought about it. (She is mentioned in the piece as someone who is connecting with public audiences). At one point during the session she said that scholars have retreated into the ivory tower, suggesting that she might believe that Kristof has identified a problem.

TWEET: “Lepore sees her writing as extension of her teaching. Developing students in skills of historcial thinking.”
Wilentz also affirmed this. I am not sure how often Lepore and Wilentz teach, but those scholars in the proverbial “trenches” who teach 4-4 loads (or more) are our most important public historians. K-12 teachers as well.

TWEET: “Lepore: So many historians think that to do public history is to somehow to engage in politics. More to this than just punditry”
This led to an interesting conversation. Lepore tried to separate what she does in The New Yorker and elsewhere from political punditry (although a lot of her public writing has an obvious political edge). Wilentz saw no need to do so. As someone who writes the occasional op-ed or politically-charged blog post, I often struggle with this issue. Do I have to take off my “historian” hat and put on my “pundit” hat whenever I write an op-ed piece? Wilentz admitted that there was a fundamental difference between writing scholarly essays/books and writing opinion pieces, but he did not think the difference was very great. He argued for what might be called a “historically informed punditry.” (This is not unlike what the History News Service has been trying to do).

TWEET: “Wilentz describes old magazines like the New Republic as “gladiatorial.” Extolls these kinds of mags as way to reach the public.”
Wilentz likes to write for the magazines read by America’s educated class. So does Lepore. She extolled the essay as the best way to reach public audiences. While both of these excellent public scholars reach a much larger audience than most historians (and should be commended for doing so), their understanding of “the public” is very narrow. It struck me that no one in the room acknowledged the assumptions about social class (and I am talking here about “class” as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one) that pervaded much of what Lepore and Wilentz had to say. For example, most Americans do not read The New Republic or The New Yorker. The overwhelming majority of the American public might ask “Who is Jill Lepore?” or “Who is Sean Wilentz?” How does one reach people like my Dad–a man without a post-secondary education who gets most of his history from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh? What about the millions of evangelical Christians who get their history from David Barton? Reaching these Americans requires a very different approach to what it means to be a “public intellectual.” Spencer Crew (museum educator) and Shola Lynch (documentary film maker) seemed to have a much more expansive view of “the public.”

TWEET: “Lepore talks about her tea party book. Says she felt a ‘chill’ from the historical profession. She was told it was a waste of time.”
I really liked The Whites of Their Eyes and gave it a lot of attention here at the blog.  I think it is unfortunate that so many historians blasted the book.  It was a great attempt to address the way history is being used (and abused) in the public.  Did Lepore waste her time writing about the Tea Party’s use and abuse of history?  Absolutely not.  The criticism she received by some members of the historical profession reveal an unwillingness to engage with cultural or political movements that are perceived to be anti-intellectual or not worthy of their time.  This is unfortunate.

My critique of The Whites of Their Eyes is different than the criticism offered by others in the historical profession.  Lepore’s book is a good start, but it did very little to help the Tea Party develop a more nuanced interpretation of American history.  I am not sure that many rank and file Tea Partiers read the book (but I could be wrong).  Few of them would listen to a Harvard history professor anyway.  So who did read The Whites of Their Eyes?  I am guessing that the readers of the book were people who already agree with Lepore about the Tea Party’s misuse of history.  It is likely that these readers might use the book for further ammunition in attacking the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party. 

In other words, Lepore was using her Princeton University Press book to preach to the choir.  Did it really change hearts and minds?  If not, what might it take to do so?  These are the questions we should be asking. Rather than using our “superior” intellectual to savage those who may not see the power of a well-crafted historical argument, we should be thinking about the most effective ways of teaching those outside of our classrooms how to make such an argument.  In the process we might succeed in winning some of them over.

Wilentz: Today’s Tea Partiers are the "Anti-Jacksonians"

John C. Calhoun:  Gotta love the hair

Over at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz rejects the idea that the Tea Party somehow represents the democratic spirit first championed by Andrew Jackson.  He writes:

Where does the Tea Party fit in this conflicted American political tradition? Several commentators have linked modern right-wing populism, including, most recently, the Tea Party right, with the political traditions of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s. It is as if Cruz were the incarnation of Old Hickory and the assault on Obamacare akin to Jackson’s assault on the Second Bank of the United States.
“The tea party is Jacksonian America,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution recently observed in The Wall Street Journal, “aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.” Galston based his argument on an essay written by Walter Russell Mead inThe National Interest more than a decade ago, which drew a straight line from the Jacksonians—imbued with what Mead described as a folkish anti-intellectualism and an anti-elitist mistrust of big government—to the Silent Majority of disillusioned New Deal Democrats who turned to Richard Nixon and later to Ronald Reagan to save them from civil rights reformers and arrogant, secular Eastern intellectuals.
Instead, Wilentz sees a different historical trajectory.  This one connects the Tea Party to the anti-Jackson, states rights, nullification-driven politics of John C. Calhoun.  He writes:
A strong nullifying political current connects the Calhounites to the secessionists of the 1860s, then to the anti-Reconstruction Southern Democrats, then to the Dixiecrats of the late 1940s, then to the post-civil rights white Southerners who have made the “Solid South” solidly Republican—and now to the Tea Party insurgents.
Read the entire piece here.  

Punditry, Scholarship, and George W. Bush

Sean Wilentz of Princeton wondered if George W. Bush was “The Worst President in History?”  Eric Foner of Columbia University agreed with him.  (I found Foner’s remarks particularly problematic since in the immediate wake of 9-11 he reminded us that historians should be careful about analyzing any event until some time had past so that they could develop some perspective).  Historian Robert Dallek proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for a “recall” of Bush.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said that Bush was a threat to the nation and the planet.

Stephen F. Knott, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics (U of Kansas Press) notes that all of these historians are liberals who, of course, have strong political disagreements with Bush and his administration.  Fair enough.  But Knott, in his recent Washington Post article, goes on to argue that these political differences are getting in the way of historical objectivity.  He states that these historians “breached their professional obligations” and engaged in “scholarly malpractice.”

Here is a taste:

The animus that scholars have directed toward Bush has at times made a mockery of the principle of academic objectivity. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2009, a panel on the Bush-Cheney years organized by a group called Historians Against the War featured scholars from Columbia, Yale, Trinity College, New York University and Yeshiva University. They compared the Bush “regime’s” security practices to those of Joseph McCarthy and various “war criminals.” The cover illustration of the roundtable’s report showed Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, seated on a pile of human skulls.

All of this overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering has come from academics who profess to live the life of the mind. In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information…

…George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.  

Also of interest: “Historians Still Despire George W. Bush” and Julian Zelizer’s “History’s Jury is Still Out on George W. Bush.”