Monday, September 21, 2015

Debating Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution: A Call for Civility

Not all reputable historians are bashing Sean Wilentz for his New York Times op-ed arguing that the slavery and race were not at the heart of the United States Constitution.  Matt Pinsker of Dickinson College has a slight different angle on this controversy.

Here is a taste of his post at the blog of his U.S. Constitution course at Dickinson:

Wilentz loves these kinds of fights, but I find them somewhat depressing.  His point, stripped of the polemics, is a powerful intellectual one.  The Framers of the Constitution steadfastly refused to include the principle of slavery –the concept of “property in man”– into the nation’s founding charter.  They didn’t just leave the word out; but fought hard over limiting the principle to a very local domain.  Freedom was always national. That matters.  However, even though it matters, it doesn’t negate the realities of color prejudice, the horrors of slavery, or even the unanticipated and dreadful consequences of specific 1787 concessions to the nation’s slaveholders.  Yet that nuance too easily gets lost in this kind of crossfire. Bernie Sanders wasn’t commenting on the Constitution directly at Liberty University, and much of the venom directed at Wilentz by other scholars conflates the realities of early American “racism” with more complicated questions about American constitutional jurisprudence.   That’s what’s so depressing.  They’re talking past each other. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sort out such issues during abbreviated Q&A sessions, through op-ed pages, or by tweets, but there should be some sense of acknowledgement by participants that this issue is a seriously contested one.  There are no simple facts and no easy conclusions.  Scholars, activists and even scholar/activists need to find ways to defend their views with vigor (and plenty of verve) without also belittling their opposition.

Several things are worth noting about his post:

First, it is interesting that Pinsker distinguishes between "scholars" and "scholar activists."  He seems to suggest (and Matt can tell me if I am wrong) that it is easy for historian-activists to be so interested in using the past for political purposes that they lose their scholarly detachment. (If Matt is not will to say this, I will!)  Earlier in the post he calls out those "scholar-activists" who have been less than civil in their criticism of Wilentz:

What happened next therefore should have been predictable, but it still caught me by surprise.  The comments section at the New York Times website exploded, the blogosphere lit up, and a number of leading scholar / activists “angry at America’s racist past” took to social media to berate Wilentz for his ignorance.  One of the tweets that hit me hardest was by noted slavery scholar Ed Baptist from Cornell.  He openly mocked Wilentz, one of the most distinguished figures in our field, calling his op-ed “pure comedy gold.”

In another tweet, Baptist dismissed Wilentz’s piece as “utterly unconvincing” and went so far as to accuse him in public of “hauling water for Hilary and Bill.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor from University of Virginia, blasted Wilentz’s argument as “shallow” and “unbecoming a historian.” Kevin Gannon from Grand View University (who, admittedly, has one of the best historical twitter handles:  @thetattooedprof) found himself “baffled” by the Wilentz reading of the Constitution, and then produced a blog post which went even further, labeling the effort “infuriating” and “sad.”

Second, and related to the first point, is Pinsker's suggestion that the "scholars-activists" and Wilentz are talking past each other.  I made a similar case in my post on the controversy: "Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders's comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution while Sanders's remark seemed to be much more general in nature."

Finally, check out Pinsker's Storify of the various tweets on this topic.  He makes some stinging critiques of a few other historians who have joined the fray.