The Constitution that protected slavery for three generations, until a devastating war and a constitutional amendment changed the game, was actually antislavery because it didn’t explicitly recognize “property in humans.”Lincoln certainly said so, and cited the same passage from Madison’s notes that Wilentz used. And does it gainsay Sanders’s inelegant but apparently necessary voicing of what ought to be obvious, what David Brion Davis, Wilentz’s scholarly mentor and my own, wrote —that the nation was “in many ways” founded on racial slavery?
If the absence of an ironclad guarantee of a right to property in men really “quashed” the slaveholders, it should be apparent in the rest of the document, by which the nation was actually governed.
But what it meant was embarrassment—and damage control.
Domestic and foreign critics had lambasted Americans for their hypocrisy in calling themselves a beacon to human freedom while only a few states moved on the slavery question.
Perhaps more so than Madison wanted, as Wilentz maintains.
But Madison’s putative intentions are all that matters to Wilentz.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.On Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders told his audience at Liberty University that the United States “in many ways was created” as a nation “from way back on racist principles.” Not everyone agreed.The historian Sean Wilentz took to to write that Bernie Sanders—and a lot of his colleagues—have it all wrong about the founding of the United States.What happened was that antifederalists in the North understood that that the federal government had been strengthened, but that slavery in particular had been shielded from an otherwise-powerful Congress.Ratification ran into trouble in the states where the antislavery criticisms of the Constitution were most articulate and widely publicized: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. He went down to the Virginia ratifying convention to assure delegates that Henry was dead wrong: The original intent was indeed to protect slave property.Some southern antifederalists like Patrick Henry, most concerned about local control, tried to argue that any stronger government would eventually threaten slavery, but the more persuasive voices in the South were those like Charles Pinckney, who testified upon returning to South Carolina that he couldn’t imagine a better bargain could have been made for the planters. Much of what we know of the Constitutional Convention comes from his notes—which, recent scholarship suggests, he carefully edited for a posthumous audience.He made sure, for example, that posterity would know that he objected to the slave trade being guaranteed for another 20 years—but this was a common Virginia position at the time, since Virginians were already net sellers of slavers rather than importers by 1787. When it came time to deal with the matter of slave representation in Federalist 54, Madison obliquely distanced himself from the three-fifths clause by saying that one had to admit that slaves were, irrefutably, both people and property.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.