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Yes, slavery is a part of our national history


Historian Sean Wilentz writes in the New York Times that slavery in the original U.S. Constitution was a local, rather than a national institution. It's not clear what the precise implications of this should be, according to Wilentz's account. He calls this "one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history," and suggests that a misunderstanding of slavery as a national institution harms the cause of those seeking racial justice today.

As someone who has learned a great deal from Wilentz's writing and admires his work, it is a huge understatement to say that I'm disappointed by this characterization of American nationhood and of its struggles over race, past and present. Here are a few aspects of the nationhood and race questions that the piece misses or misreads.

Fuzzy boundaries between nation and state

Wilentz's piece reads as if a clear delineation exists between national issues and state issues. It's true that if you look at how day-to-day social policy was made and implemented, prior to the Progressive era, you find a more limited role for the federal government, and up until the New Deal you find much clearer boundaries. But just because this policy distinction held up, doesn't mean that it applies to the Constitution or the political system generally. The relationship between federal government and the states was contested all the time. This happened in court cases like McCulloch v. Maryland, over the Constitutional status of the national bank, and Gibbons v. Ogden, which posed the question of control over waterways. The provisions of the Constitution intended to clarify what should be left to the states and what could fall under national control have never been obvious in their meaning. Furthermore, the question of whether the federal government was constituted by a compact of states, or represented a distinct entity on its own - a whole greater than the sum of its parts, legally - was a big controversy in the early republic. Andrew Jackson rejected the "compact theory" approach when he rejected South Carolina's attempt to nullify tariff laws. Not everyone bought it, as evidenced by the eventual secession of the Confederate states. But to suggest that the early American republic was characterized by a clear boundary between national issues and local issues is to miss the basis of much of the political conflict from the Founding to the Civil War.

Preventing the expansion of slavery was a key tactic employed by its opponents. The Northwest Ordinances suggest this, as do the political debates that unfolded during westward expansion. The Republican Party was formed in the 1850s around the idea of preventing slavery's expansion, and around a strong concept of nation. But they didn't invent either of these ideas.

Presidents and slavery

Thinking about our early presidents as slaveholders isn't anyone's favorite patriotic exercise. But it happened - including some of the most venerated Founding-era leaders - Washington, Jefferson, Madison. One of the most important purposes of the presidency in the early republic was to embody the national character of the Constitution. This had practical dimensions, as the president was in charge of executing Congress's laws. But it was also symbolic, and the presence of slave-owners in the White House strains the claim that the "peculiar institution" was a merely a local one.

The connection between the presidency and slavery goes beyond the Founding generation and beyond the question of ownership. As the acquisition of new territory forced the issue, concessions to slavery's defenders didn't just come from Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk (both expansionists and slaveowners). Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Democratic Party's nominee in 1848, advocated popular sovereignty as a way to address the issue. And Franklin Pierce, a son of "live free or die" New Hampshire, was persuaded to put his political weight, such as it was behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act - the compromise that led to the formation of the Republican Party. (One of my favorite accounts of this is in Wilentz's book.)

One of the unique features of the Jacksonian party system is that both the Democrats and the Whigs were nationally competitive parties, with support in the North and the South. Historically, this has often not been the case (as it is not now). The national nature of the party system in the years leading up to the war belies the idea that the issue was merely a local one.

Others will, I'm sure, take issue with Wilentz's reading of the Constitutional text. But I think far more informative for understanding nationhood and race are the events that breathed governing life into the Constitution in the decades that followed. Party competition, presidential action, and legal struggles all point to the moving and blurry boundaries between nation and state. This applies across many political issues that defined the new nation, but it is especially true for one with the moral weight of slavery.