Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 26, 2020

When the N.Y. Times referred to elected black officials as members of a “mongrel party”

Filed under: african-american,racism — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

Since this post will be commentary on a Sunday NY Times book review that is behind a paywall, I am including the entire review at the bottom. In “When White Supremacists Overthrew an Elected Government,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the head of Princeton’s African-American Studies department and a frequent commentator on cable news, looks at David Zucchino’s “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy”. Zucchino, a contributing writer to the NY Times, has written a history of a white racist attack in Wilmington, North Carolina that left 30 African-Americans dead and their mass exodus from the city.

Wilmington had the largest percentage of blacks in any American city in the south. Still loyal to the Republican Party, they elected blacks to many offices in a manner that was reminiscent of Reconstruction. Whites, who voted Democrat, felt like they were being “replaced” and carried out a pogrom. You get a feel for Zucchino’s chronicle through this quote from the review, which I encourage you to read in its totality below:

The leaders of the violence went on to celebrated political careers. Josephus Daniels was appointed secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson and later named ambassador to Mexico by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furnifold Simmons served 30 years as a United States senator. No one was ever held responsible for the brutal murders in Wilmington.

After reading this review, I made a bet with myself that the NY Times coverage of these events in 1898 would be from a perspective consistent with the racist policies of the Wilmington terrorists and the liberal icons Woodrow Wilson (revered much less so today than when I was young) and FDR.

Taking advantage of my subscription to the Times, I did some investigation in the paper’s archives. My intuition was correct. The Gray Lady wore a white hood and its editors, for all I know, were invited to Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of “Birth of a Nation”.

The first sign that Wilmington was on the NY Times radar was on November 4th when it reported on “Race Troubles in the South: The First Red Shirt Parade held at Wilmington, N.C.”

WILMINGTON, N. C., Nov. 3.—The first red shirt parade on horseback witnessed in Wilmington was held today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the negroes. The whole town turned out to see it, and hundreds of ladies waved flags and hand-kerchiefs as the long column of horsemen rode by. While the riders frequently cheered, the parade was otherwise quiet and orderly. Not an insulting word was uttered to a negro.

How about that? Not an insulting word was uttered. You’d think that the Times might have mentioned that the Red Shirts had a history of doing much worse than insulting black people. Wikipedia states that they and other such groups were the “the military arm of the Democratic Party” and were even more effective than the KKK in intimidating and assassination black Republican elected officials. On the same day, the racist Raleigh News & Observer had an article that sounded exactly like the NY Times:

The first Red Shirt parade on horseback ever witnessed in Wilmington electrified the people today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the Negroes. The whole town turned out to see it. It was an enthusiastic body of men. Otherwise it was quiet and orderly.

The next sign that the NYT had lined up behind the growing white power movement was a November 5th article written just before local elections. It was titled “North Carolina: The Combination of White Voters to Resist the Possibility of Negro Domination.” No byline is attached to the article. It is openly racist in its analysis and as was customary back then uses lower case for the word “negro”. It even speaks of a political revolution:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4.—Statements received here in reference to the race conflict which it was feared was imminent in North Carolina indicate that there will be no trouble at the polls on election day at Wilmington or elsewhere. The opinion prevails among those familiar with the situation that the white people will not resort to intimidation and. that the negroes will be allowed to vote without molestation, but that a large number of the latter have become disgusted with the Republican Party managers` failure to nominate candidates for county officers and will stay away from the polls.

The movement for a combination of the white inhabitants of the State to overcome the possibility of negro domination is reported to be gaining ground, and a political revolution is foreshadowed by observers of the situation. A Democratic victory is predicted, the members of that party expecting, with the aid of white Republicans and Populists, to elect the State judicial ticket, five of the nine Congressmen, and a majority in the State Legislature, although the Senate, they say, will possibly be close.

The former adversaries of Democracy who are now flocking to that party’s standard. say that they have not changed their political opinions, but that the combination of the white forces is necessary at this election, if for no longer, in view of the exigencies of the situation.

You’ll note that the Populists are forming a bloc with the racist Democratic Party in keeping with its retreat from a multiracial, class-based fight against the capitalists, while white Republicans are just as willing to sell out black voters as they were in 1877. With so many prestigious civil war historians rankled by Project 1619’s claim that blacks mostly fought on their own, you have to wonder whether they have an idea about what happened in Wilmington in 1898.

A day later, the NY Times published an article titled innocently enough “North Carolina’s Negroes: Offices Which They Hold in Several Counties of the State”. It was almost entirely a routine listing of those offices with likely the implication that they had to be put in their place, based on the final paragraph:

The number of negro office holders in some of these counties is small, and they are nearly all east of the centre line, but they give a pretty strong indication of what we may expect if the mongrel party which has put these negroes in office wins. If they make such a showing in a few years, what may we not look for if their party triumphs and they get on top again?

Mongrel party? If this is what the newspaper of record was writing, you can only imagine the sort of thing that was being published in the local white-owned newspapers in Wilmington that were whipping up the racist frenzy that would produce the pogrom.

To get an idea of how black activists reacted to Wilmington that year, you need to read a December 11th article titled “President Blamed By Negroes”. It is a reminder that black militancy and the need for black self-defense was not invented by the Black Panther Party:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20.—Washington is pretty generally condemning a speech made ire last night at a meeting of the National Racial Protective Association by T. Tomas Fortune of New York.

There were devotional exercises and resolutions of complaint against the President not insisting upon protection to the colored people in North and South Carolina, and then came Fortune’s speech. He referred to the prayer that had included a request for the divine blessing upon the President as being specially pertinent to a present need, sneered at the choice of Gen.

Wheeler as “a side partner” to the President, and declared that if Confederate graves are to be cared for by the Government, Confederate widows and orphans must be pensioned and a monument erected to Benedict Arnold. A specimen utterance was this:

“If all the black and yellow people stood on the same ground as myself, there would have been no thirty colored men killed in Wilmington unless there were also thirty white men killed. If the colored people did not have Winchester rifles, they had pitch and pine, and while the whites were killing, the blacks should have been burning. The negroes will never get their rights until they stand up for them. The worst organization which ever existed was the organized chivalry of the South, and as a result w have 250,000 mulattos in this country. Why, the very men killed at Wilmington were the sons and grandsons of the men who killed them.”

The speaker went on railing at the President and Gov. Tanner, and said that he was in favor of mixed schools, mixed marriages. mixed churches, and “a fair deal in everything.”

I had never heard of T. Thomas Fortune before reading this. He was a remarkable figure and way ahead of his time. Once again citing Wikipedia:

With Fortune at the helm as co-owner with Emanuel Fortune, Jr., and Jerome B. Peterson, the New York Age became the most widely read of all Black newspapers. It stood at the forefront as a voice agitating against the evils of discrimination, lynching, mob violence, and disenfranchisement. Its popularity was due in part to Fortune’s editorials, which condemned all forms of discrimination and demanded full justice for all African Americans. Ida B. Wells’s newspaper Memphis Free Speech and Headlight had its printing press destroyed and building burned as the result of an article published in it on May 25, 1892. Fortune then gave her a job and a new platform from which to detail and condemn lynching.

Toward the end of his writing career, he became the editor of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper. For those on the left so worried about “black identity politics”, especially the crew around Sean Wilentz and the bat-shit WSWS, it’s high time they woke up and got off their white horse. As for the NY Times, I am glad they are pushing Project 1619, but they still have a lot to atone for.

When White Supremacists Overthrew an Elected Government
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Jan. 7, 2020

WILMINGTON’S LIE
The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
By David Zucchino

Today we Americans find ourselves struggling with the ghosts of our past. Some among us reach for histories that affirm the established view of who we are as a nation. Many believe the United States is, and must always be, a white nation. But moments of storm and stress also occasion the telling of different stories. We have seen this with The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Now we have David Zucchino’s brilliant new book.

“Wilmington’s Lie” is a tragic story about the brutal overthrow of the multiracial government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. The book is divided into three parts. The first details how white supremacists rejected the goals of Reconstruction and chafed under what they called “Negro domination.” We are introduced to characters like “Colonel” Alfred Moore Waddell, who would play a central role in the coup, and to the overall sense of moral panic that engulfed the white community as it confronted black self-assertion — like that of Abraham Galloway, the first black man in North Carolina to campaign in a statewide race — in the aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat.

The second section charts the campaign to reassert white rule in Wilmington. Zucchino shows how Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of The News and Observer, the state’s most important daily, and Furnifold Simmons, the state chairman of the Democratic Party, exploited the prejudices and fears of white North Carolinians. As Zucchino writes, “More than a century before sophisticated fake news attacks targeted social media websites, Daniels’s manipulation of white readers through phony or misleading newspaper stories was perhaps the most daring and effective disinformation campaign of the era.” This was most clearly seen in the exploitation of a column about race, sex and lynching in the black newspaper The Daily Record to justify the coup. The article, written by one of the paper’s publishers, Alexander Manly, became Exhibit A in the case that black men had forgotten their place and represented a clear and present danger to the sanctity of white womanhood.

The first two parts of the book move in a deliberate fashion. Zucchino, a contributing writer for The New York Times, does not overwrite the scenes. His moral judgment stands at a distance. He simply describes what happened and the lies told to justify it all. A generalized terror comes into view as the white citizens of Wilmington mobilized to seize power through violence and outright fraud.

The details contained in the last part of the book are heart-wrenching. With economy and a cinematic touch, Zucchino recounts the brutal assault on black Wilmington. A town that once boasted the largest percentage of black residents of any large Southern city found itself in the midst of a systematic purge. Successful black men were targeted for banishment from the city, while black workers left all their possessions behind as they rushed to the swamps for safety. Over 60 people died. No one seemed to care. The governor of North Carolina cowered in the face of the violent rebellion, worried about his own life. President William McKinley turned a blind eye to the bloodshed. And Waddell was selected as mayor as the white supremacists forced the duly elected officials to resign.

In the aftermath of it all, the white community of Wilmington told itself a lie to justify the carnage, a lie that would be repeated so often that it stood in for the truth of what actually happened on Nov. 10. The editors of one newspaper wrote, “We must hope that by far the greater part of Negroes in this city are anxious for the restoration of order and quiet and ‘the old order’ — the rule of the white people.” The leaders of the violence went on to celebrated political careers. Josephus Daniels was appointed secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson and later named ambassador to Mexico by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furnifold Simmons served 30 years as a United States senator. No one was ever held responsible for the brutal murders in Wilmington.

In the end, Zucchino pulls the story into our present moment. He interviews descendants of those who perpetrated the violence and those who bore the brunt of it. What becomes clear, at least to me, is that memory and trauma look different depending on which side of the tracks you stand. The last sentence of “Wilmington’s Lie,” which quotes the grandson of Alex Manly, makes that point without a hint of hyperbole. “If there’s a hell, I hope they’re burning in it, all of them.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the chair of the department of African-American studies and the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor of African-American studies at Princeton.

 

7 Comments »

  1. Nice bit of research by Louis, especially to wonder how the newspaper of record covered the heinous acts described. No comments, please, by other readers claiming the NYTimes hasn’t changed a bit over the past century.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — January 27, 2020 @ 2:56 am

  2. In 1898, The New York Times was not the “newspaper of record.” It was not even close to being a paper of record. It had a fairly small number of readers – in the twenty-six thousand readers range – and was on the verge of going out of business. It became a more important newspaper later in time due to its subsequent coverage of world events. That could not happen until the paper dropped its price from 3 cents to 1 cent, which brought in a lot more readers and thus the money necessary to cover events more carefully.

    Moreover, the paper had only been acquired in 1896 by the family that, at least if you count in-laws, effectively still owns it. The ability initially to control content in 1898 had to have been very limited and, likely, dictated by reporters more than the paper’s owners. Which is to say, the Times of that year almost surely printed what was on hand, whether or not it reflected views with which it agreed.

    I note these points because you are reading a lot into several articles from that period, interesting though they surely are. I’m not always a big fan of the paper – its coverage of the Shoah and of the Stalinist period are beyond poor – but, at the same time, I think you are being unfair, as it would be perfectly obvious that its coverage in 1898 does not tell us all that much about the paper’s editorial line of that time. Now, it is possible that the reporting does match the editorial line but, frankly, you have not shown that to be true.

    I’ll also note that Prof. Wilentz is a fine scholar. He is certainly not an apologist for racism or slavery. His point is to note that society is not a simple thing and that there were pro and anti-slavery forces that have to be accounted for in US history, going way back. His recent book, No Property in Man, is an important book that should be widely read and that basically shows the noted point to be the case. That is not an apology for racism or slavery.

    It is, instead, intended to place the history of the transformation from slavery into some context, which includes the fact that slavery was up until the time of the US revolution a worldwide phenomenon, including in the US North, that the antislavery movement saw its first organized opposition on earth during the time of the original US Constitution and that these facts ultimately led to the Civil War.

    Rome was not built in a day. While the Civil War defeated slavery in the US, it did not bring an end to the ideology that allowed people to treat others as their property. It still has not totally vanquished that ideology in the US and, quite clearly, chattel slavery has made a comeback in some parts of the world (but not in the US). And, racism continues in the US but, at this point, it has very powerful opponents.

    Comment by Neal — January 27, 2020 @ 9:10 pm

  3. In 1898, The New York Times was not the “newspaper of record.” It was not even close to being a paper of record.

    Maybe not. But its reporting reflected the deeply racist character of American society in the post-Reconstruction period that viewed black people as little better than animals. The Democratic Party was openly racist with the Republican President McKinley siding with the North Carolina racist gangs. As for the Democrats, the White House was occupied by Grover Cleveland prior to McKinley. He would not use federal power to defend voting rights, so he would have been no different from McKinley on protecting black elected officials in Wilmington.

    As for Sean Wilentz, he is certainly not an apologist for racism or slavery but his scholarship is rather dated. My advice is to read some of the younger historians who would not be so deferential to a sack of shit like Andrew Jackson.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 27, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

  4. Louis, no one doubts that the US had a lot of racism at the turn of the 20th Century. But, your comment is not enlightening after you take into consideration the actual significance in 1898 of the NY Times. A paper with a circulation of 26,000 is small-town paper, even back then, and even less so inside a major city like NYC. I believe – but my memory might be mistaken – that The Herald’s circulation in that period exceeded 500,000. So, its coverage likely mattered a lot more than that of the starving, unread NY Times.

    In that period – with reference to your comment that “its reporting reflected the deeply racist character of American society in the post-Reconstruction period that viewed black people as little better than animals” -, a small newspaper like the NY Times would likely have relied on whatever materials it could get its hands on. So, we don’t know from your comment and evidence whether the items, by reports written in the South (and, perhaps, by local reporters), simply slipped passed the editor’s attention or whether the actual items reflected the common view in NYC (and the North) or specifically at the NY Times at the time. Now, the new owner of the paper had lived in the South, so it is possible that the paper had such viewpoint but, for whatever reason, you decided simply to ascribe items within the paper as a reflection of how the paper or the entirety of society – as opposed to the author(s) of the item you quote – thought. To me, that is poor methodology that came to you from reading back into time the subsequent place in our society of the NY Times.

    Wilentz is a major scholar, as you know full well. Moreover, he continues to do research so your suggestion that he is passe is nonsense. His most recent history book, No Property in Man, is a detailed study about the writing of the Constitution with reference to the issue of slavery and about how the Constitution was subsequently understood and employed by proponents and opponents to slavery from that time and up to the time of the Civil War. The book was published in September of 2018. That’s pretty recent scholarship if you ask me.

    I read lots of historians. Younger does not mean better informed or more capable. And, my strong suggestion is that you read his noted book because it is a first-rate piece of scholarship. You may or may not agree ultimately with any or at least not all of his conclusions but the book is of a caliber that its conclusions are both supported by the record and reasonable. I, for one, don’t read history books with reference to whether or not I agree with an author. I read books to add to the stock of my knowledge and where a book brings facts to bear to make a point, I pay close attention to those facts, regardless of whether I agree with the author. Wilentz’s book is of the caliber that you can learn a lot from it even if you don’t agree with any of his conclusions.

    In any event, the points I noted above are not remotely controversial. Saying that there was a lot of racism in the US is not contradicted by the fact that there have been, from early on, forces opposed to slavery and racism. And, it is not controversial to note that the first substantial social movement on earth opposed to slavery began in the US. That is a fact. Presumably, someone who examines dialectical aspects of society would well-understand that opposition to racism and slavery are real things, whether or not one force gained the upper hand. And, for those of us who don’t look at history that way, it is perfectly obvious that there were opponents to slavery even though, since the dawn of civilization, there has been slavery. And, once you have something treated as owned, it had to be the case, all along, that slaves were being bought and sold. And, please note, that is why, in Africa, there were Africans who made their living enslaving and selling slaves for export to the Americas.

    Comment by Neal — January 28, 2020 @ 4:54 pm

  5. Here’s a critique of Wilentz’s latest book. Since it’s behind a paywall, I am posting the whole piece.

    NY Review of Books, JUNE 6, 2019 ISSUE
    How Proslavery Was the Constitution?
    by Nicholas Guyatt

    No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding
    by Sean Wilentz
    Harvard University Press, 350 pp., $26.95

    Were the Founding Fathers responsible for American slavery? William Lloyd Garrison, the celebrated abolitionist, certainly thought so. In an uncompromising address in Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854, Garrison denounced the hypocrisy of a nation that declared that “all men are created equal” while holding nearly four million African-Americans in bondage. The US Constitution was hopelessly implicated in this terrible crime, Garrison claimed: it kept free states like Massachusetts in a union with slave states like South Carolina, and it increased the influence of slave states in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College by counting enslaved people as three fifths of a human being. When Garrison finished excoriating the Founders, he pulled a copy of the Constitution from his pocket, branded it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” and set it on fire.

    Garrison was one of the most unpopular men in nineteenth-century America, and this performance did little to improve his standing with the moderates of his time. Today’s historians are more sympathetic to his argument that the Constitution made possible the expansion of slavery in the early United States. According to Ibram X. Kendi, author of the National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016), the Constitution “enshrined the power of slaveholders and racist ideas in the nation’s founding document.” David Waldstreicher, in Slavery’s Constitution (2009), charges that the Founders produced “a proslavery constitution, in intention and effect.”

    Their bleak assessments are grounded in the many protections for slaveholding agreed on at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Beyond the three-fifths rule, the international slave trade was exempted from regulation by the federal government, which otherwise oversaw foreign commerce. Congress was banned from abolishing the trade until 1808 at the earliest. The federal government was prevented from introducing a head tax on slaves, and free states were forbidden from harboring runaways from slave states. The Founders obliged Congress to “suppress insurrections,” committing the national government to put down slave rebellions. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips, an associate of Garrison’s, summarized the work of the Founders in 1845: “Willingly, with deliberate purpose, our fathers bartered honesty for gain, and became partners with tyrants, that they might share in the profits of their tyranny.”

    The effectiveness of constitutional protections for slavery can be measured in the growth of the institution between the formation of the federal government in 1789 and the secession of South Carolina in 1860. Across these seven decades, the number of enslaved people in the United States increased from 700,000 to four million. The dispossession of Native Americans and the violent seizure of northern Mexico created a vast cotton belt that stretched from the Atlantic to the Rio Grande. Although Congress opted to abolish the international slave trade at the earliest opportunity in 1808, a vast domestic trade—expressly permitted by the Constitution—relocated more than a million enslaved people from upper southern states like Maryland and Virginia to the cotton fields of the Deep South. Unspeakable crimes were committed against African-Americans; countless lives were broken or ended. While individual slaveholders bore their share of responsibility, the Constitution allowed proslavery forces to use the power of the federal government to support appalling measures. With the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which denied the possibility of black citizenship in America and invited slaveholders to take their property into any state of the Union, slavery’s domination of national politics seemed absolute.

    Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man concedes the horrors of slavery and acknowledges that the Constitution benefited slaveholders. For Wilentz, though, fixating on the Constitution’s proslavery effects or racist underpinning overlooks a “crucial subtlety” at the heart of the 1787 Constitutional Convention: while the delegates in Philadelphia encouraged and rewarded slaveholders, they refused to validate the principle of “property in man.”

    Most books about the Constitution, even the ones that largely ignore slavery, acknowledge that the Convention walked a difficult line on the question. By 1787, in five of the original thirteen states, the legislature had outlawed slavery or the state supreme court had ended it. Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had passed gradual emancipation bills, which ensured that slavery in those states would survive into the nineteenth century. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, legal challenges under the new state constitutions brought slavery to a sudden end. New York and New Jersey had already started debating emancipation before the Constitutional Convention. They finally opted for their own gradual schemes in 1799 and 1804, respectively.

    Economic and demographic developments encouraged the view that slavery was in retreat in the 1780s. In Virginia, which had more slaves than any other state throughout the antebellum period, soil exhaustion and trade disruption persuaded many white planters to shift from tobacco to less labor-intensive wheat farming. Virginia’s legislators made it easier for individual slaveholders to manumit their slaves. Throughout the upper South, writers and activists disputed the idea that the region’s future depended on the perpetuation of slavery. The holdouts in this fragile antislavery moment were the Deep South states, principally Georgia and South Carolina. Even here, white voices were raised against slavery, but the political elite was deeply committed to the persistence of human bondage. “If it is debated, whether their slaves are their property,” one South Carolina politician had warned the Continental Congress in 1776, “there is an end of the confederation.”

    If eleven of the thirteen states were antislavery or skeptical about slavery’s future, why were Georgia and South Carolina given so much leeway in the Constitutional Convention? Wilentz offers a familiar answer: had any plan for emancipation been discussed, “the slaveholding states, above all the Lower South, would have never ratified such a Constitution.” There’s a comforting finality about the logic of this: the delegates at Philadelphia did the best they could, but it was simply impossible to craft a strong central government in 1787 without sweeping concessions to slavery.

    Wilentz’s book has little to say about two questions that would illuminate what is often called the “paradox of liberty”: Were threats of disunion from South Carolina and Georgia credible? And might the Virginia delegation, under the enlightened leadership of James Madison, have led the upper South (and the nation) toward a happier future? Instead Wilentz focuses on the ways in which the Deep South delegates, occasionally (but not always) supported by their fellow slaveholders in the upper South, were frustrated in their efforts to obtain an even more proslavery Constitution. Rather than viewing the Philadelphia delegates as pusillanimous on the slavery question, Wilentz sees them playing a long game: by consciously and doggedly affirming “no property in man,” the Founders insisted that freedom, rather than slavery, was the principle at the core of the new nation.

    Wilentz admits there are problems with this argument. It’s easy to understand why historians believe that slaveholding interests triumphed at Philadelphia, “because in several respects they did.” He does not dispute that slavery emerged intact from the 1787 Convention, but insists that “the Constitution’s proslavery features appear substantial but incomplete.” There is a surreal quality to some of his counterfactuals in this respect. (What if the Deep South had forced the delegates to pass a five-fifths rule?)

    But for the most part he looks to later developments. The exclusion of “property in man” became “the Achilles’ heel of proslavery politics.” It offered a critical opening to subsequent generations of antislavery campaigners and politicians, who could—and eventually did—point to the absence of absolute constitutional guarantees of slavery’s legitimacy. Most notably, Wilentz suggests that the Republican Party of the 1850s used the Constitution as “the means to hasten slavery’s demise.” By declining to make an explicit declaration in 1787 that slavery was a foundational principle of the United States, the Founders had brilliantly facilitated the later Republican cry of “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.”

    Our view about whether the Constitution hastened abolition may depend on how we understand slavery’s effects in the seventy-five years between the Constitutional Convention and the Emancipation Proclamation. As Calvin Schermerhorn argues in Unrequited Toil (2018), his recent book on the development of slavery in the United States, the expansion of the institution under the provisions of the Constitution did incalculable damage to African-Americans, while hugely increasing the wealth of white people. By 1860, enslaved people counted for nearly 20 percent of national wealth and produced nearly 60 percent of the nation’s exports. Historians and economists debate the centrality of slavery to the emergence of modern American capitalism, but few dispute that the gains of slavery—through shipping, banking, insurance, and commerce—were distributed nationally.

    Wilentz writes that the exclusion of an explicit guarantee of property in man was not just an accident or “technicality” at the Constitutional Convention. The delegates “insisted” on it, he claims, and he offers a line from James Madison to prove his point: it would be wrong “to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” This quotation is so perfect for Wilentz’s argument that he could not have invented better evidence in support of it.

    But there is some doubt as to whether Madison actually used those words in Philadelphia. The debates at the Convention were held in secret, and the only person who kept substantial notes on what had been said was Madison himself. The legal historian Mary Sarah Bilder won the Bancroft Prize in 2016 for Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, a brilliant study of just how extensively Madison reshaped the story of what happened at Philadelphia over his long lifetime. On the subject of slavery, she believes that Madison tinkered with the transcript of 1787 to make himself seem more righteous than he actually had been; she suspects that the specific reference to “property in men” was added at a later date. This doesn’t destroy Wilentz’s argument that “no property in man” was a discrete principle with political power, especially in the nineteenth century. But the notion that Madison and his colleagues planted antislavery language in the Constitution for Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to discover in the 1850s is more exciting than convincing.

    Madison is a tantalizing figure for Wilentz. The disputed quotation decrying “property in men” appears half a dozen times in his book, with Bilder’s qualms relegated to an endnote. Wilentz explains sympathetically that when Madison declared during the Virginia ratification debates that the Constitution provides strong protection for slavery via the fugitive slave clause, the Founder was “stuck in a dilemma that made candor impossible.” When evidence of antislavery intent dries up, Wilentz tells us that Madison was taking an influential stand against property in man even if he “could not or would not admit [it], not even, perhaps, to himself.”

    Madison failed to free any of his slaves during his lifetime, supported the extension of slavery into the West during the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821, and ended his life as president of the American Colonization Society, an institution dedicated to the permanent relocation of African-Americans to another continent. Like Thomas Jefferson, his friend and predecessor in the White House, Madison balanced a watery (and usually private) antislavery sentiment with a profound squeamishness about living alongside black people in freedom. (In his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson insisted that American abolition would require a double effort: black people should be freed from slavery and then “removed beyond the reach of mixture.”)

    The intellectual and political limitations of these antislavery slaveholders became even clearer after 1815, when the rise of cotton offered fretful planters in Virginia a lucrative alternative to manumitting their slaves or persuading them to settle in Liberia or Haiti. Between 1820 and 1860, for every African-American colonized in Liberia nearly one hundred were driven from the Upper South to the cotton and sugar fields of the Deep South. Madison and Jefferson, who had specified that enslaved people be colonized as a condition of their emancipation, remained adamantly theoretical in their antislavery convictions. Both men clung to colonization throughout their long lives—Jefferson died in 1826, Madison in 1836—despite clear evidence both that American slavery was expanding and that African-Americans would not consent to their expatriation. Jefferson, who owned more than six hundred people across his long life, freed only five slaves in his will. (Two of those were his sons.) Madison freed none.

    In making the case for an antislavery Founding, Wilentz misses the most obvious and historically plausible defense against the charge that the Founders facilitated the full horrors of US slavery. In 1787 white Americans could still indulge in the belief that the historical tide was turning against human bondage. The cotton gin had not yet been invented, and the cotton belt remained in the possession of its Native American inhabitants. In the 1780s, a chorus of international antislavery activists—such as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Anthony Benezet, and Jacques Pierre Brissot—believed that the force of public opinion could overturn the power of the slaveholders. Britain and the United States seemed poised to ban the slave trade; these activists predicted that, without new arrivals from Africa, slavery would wither and die. Every delegate in Philadelphia should have known that the Constitution’s protections for slavery would slow this antislavery tide; but many might have told themselves that they were only delaying the inevitable.

    This interpretation may be overly generous to the Founders, many of whom had already concluded that racial coexistence after emancipation would be as great a challenge for prejudiced white people as ending slavery. But the argument that the Founders couldn’t foresee the horrors of the cotton belt seems more convincing than the suggestion that James Madison slipped in antislavery language for Abraham Lincoln to use during the 1860 presidential race. So why is Wilentz so interested in a form of antislavery originalism? The answer, I think, lies in politics rather than history. No Property in Man began as a series of lectures at Harvard in 2015. That year, Wilentz got into a spat with Bernie Sanders after the presidential candidate told an audience in Virginia that the United States “in many ways was created…on racist principles.” Wilentz, in a New York Times Op-Ed, dismissed “the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery” and accused Sanders of “poison[ing] the current presidential campaign.” To describe the Founding as racist was, Wilentz wrote, to perpetuate “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.”

    Wilentz has long been a liberal activist. For more than a quarter-century, he faithfully supported Bill and Hillary Clinton. During the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, he warned Congress that “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness” if Bill Clinton was impeached. In a 2008 editorial in The New Republic, he accused Barack Obama and his campaign team of keeping “the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck” during their battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He has been a particularly sharp critic of those who’ve rallied behind candidates to the left of the Clintons. In a recent article lamenting the Sanders phenomenon, Wilentz accused the left of being irresponsible in its economic promises, solipsistic in its embrace of identity politics, and disrespectful toward the achievements of the liberal tradition. Trashing the Founders is, for Wilentz, another sign of progressive immaturity.

    At a public event in Florida last spring, the distinguished historians Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood also criticized what might be called the Bernie Sanders view of the Founding. Ellis complained that college professors were now telling students that the Founders were “the deadest whitest males in American history.” Instead of learning about the nation’s many accomplishments, students were getting “anti-history,” in which slavery and Native American dispossession had been placed at center stage by reckless educators. “Those are storylines worth exploring,” Ellis conceded, “but for that to take the form it has taken, it means young people coming into College don’t learn about the Revolution, the Constitution, the coming of the Civil War.” No Property in Man, with its forceful insistence on the Constitution’s antislavery position, is a perfect response to the “anti-history” produced by a younger generation of scholars.

    Do we weaken our politics when we argue that the Founders protected slavery or that they struggled to see people of color as equals? Wilentz thinks so, and he has a powerful figure to help him make the case. Frederick Douglass became an international celebrity on the abolitionist lecture circuit in the 1840s. Working alongside William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, he at first embraced Garrison’s view that the Founders were fatally compromised by their protections of slavery. “The identical men who…framed the American democratic constitution,” Douglass told a crowd in London in 1847, “were trafficking in the blood and souls of their fellow men.” This, he said, was a stain on everyone in the United States, not only southerners: “The whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end.”

    The Garrisonians believed that the northern states had a duty to secede from the South, and that participating in elections would dignify a system that was rotten to the core. In the 1850s, Douglass broke with this strategy. He began to argue that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” that, despite its proslavery effects, contained “principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” His old ally Phillips had scoffed at “this new theory of the Anti-slavery character of the Constitution.” Wilentz, however, praises Douglass for realizing that an antislavery understanding of the Founding might have more political traction than the theatrical recusals of the Garrisonians. When Wilentz discusses the Garrisonians’ righteous fury at the constitutional “compromise” on slavery, it’s hard not to think about Sanders and his supporters: “For the Garrisonians, morality dispelled context and bred certitude; anything short of revulsion at that compromise, rendered as condoning evil for the sake of commercial profit, signified grotesque complicity in slavery.”

    Wilentz casts the Garrisonians as naive dreamers whose ideological purity stymied their political influence. But No Property in Man has a narrow understanding of antislavery politics, focused principally on Congress and debates among white elites about the propriety of slavery’s expansion. There’s no room in Wilentz’s account for the men and women, black and white, who struggled to establish pathways out of slavery via the Underground Railroad, or who waged battles in statehouses, in courts, and on the streets to establish the rights of black people within the United States. (Martha S. Jones’s revealing new book Birthright Citizens, which explores many of these aspects of antislavery politics, marks a whole field that entirely escapes Wilentz’s gaze.)

    Then there’s the unfortunate fact that many of Wilentz’s antislavery activists—whom he loosely describes as “abolitionists”—were actually advocates of colonization. The project of removing black people from the United States drew adherents from the North and upper South until the 1840s and beyond, a fact that appalled the Garrisonians and supported their belief that slavery and racism were national rather than regional crimes. If we accept, as Wilentz argues, that northerners, along with some sympathetic or unconsciously radical Virginians, essentially doomed slavery by denying property in man in 1787, we indulge a familiar story in which the racial sins of the United States effectively become sins of the South. Garrison and his followers were ruthless in dismissing that convenient fiction. “Slavery is not a southern, but a national institution,” wrote Garrison’s newspaper in 1843, “involving the North, as well as the South.” That this was a hard truth for many northerners to hear—then and now—makes it no less important as a political insight.

    Although the subtitle of No Property in Man promises that the book will explore “slavery and antislavery at the nation’s founding,” it will not convince historians of the early republic who have struggled to find antislavery sentiments in the Founders’ intentions. The book is more interesting on the efforts of legislators, reformers, and radicals to work out the implications of “no property in man” through debates over territorial expansion in the following decades, and on the fissure over principles and political participation in the abolitionist activism of the 1840s and 1850s. Wilentz falls short of his central goal: to persuade readers that the Founders planted an antislavery seed that bore fruit in 1860. His book succeeds when it demonstrates that the political abolitionists of the 1850s creatively refashioned the founding story for their own ends. In doing so, they were acting not as historians but as activists; and it’s no surprise that Wilentz, while approaching us as the former, is as much the latter as any of his subjects.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 28, 2020 @ 5:40 pm

  6. Louis, with due respect, I think that the review in the NY Review of Books is misleading regarding the book’s contents. So that you at least understand what the author Wilentz actually had in mind, I quote the entirety (i.e., the next three paragraphs that appear below) of the publisher’s presentation about the contents of the book (https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674972223):

    “Americans revere the Constitution even as they argue fiercely over its original toleration of slavery. Some historians have charged that slaveholders actually enshrined human bondage at the nation’s founding. The acclaimed political historian Sean Wilentz shares the dismay but sees the Constitution and slavery differently. Although the proslavery side won important concessions, he asserts, antislavery impulses also influenced the framers’ work. Far from covering up a crime against humanity, the Constitution restricted slavery’s legitimacy under the new national government. In time, that limitation would open the way for the creation of an antislavery politics that led to Southern secession, the Civil War, and Emancipation.”

    “Wilentz’s controversial and timely reconsideration upends orthodox views of the Constitution. He describes the document as a tortured paradox that abided slavery without legitimizing it. This paradox lay behind the great political battles that fractured the nation over the next seventy years. As Southern Fire-eaters invented a proslavery version of the Constitution, antislavery advocates, including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, proclaimed antislavery versions based on the framers’ refusal to validate what they called ‘property in man.'”

    “No Property in Man invites fresh debate about the political and legal struggles over slavery that began during the Revolution and concluded with the Confederacy’s defeat. It drives straight to the heart of the most contentious and enduring issue in all of American history.”

    Another way to put things. There was already a fierce debate about the legitimacy of slavery at the time the Constitution was written. The debate played out during the Constitutional convention and compromises were reached. Those compromises provided ammunition for future arguments about the legitimacy of slavery. However, the backdrop of this was the belief at the time the Constitution was being written that slavery was dying out – hence the push to end the slave trade and to keep the word slave and slavery out of the Constitution. Such belief was driven by both moral revulsion about slavery, even for some in the upper southern states such as Virginia, and the view that economic considerations would further undermine it. The economic argument, of course, turned out not to be true, most particularly with the rise of cotton.

    When the debate over ratifying the Constitution was occurring, slavery came up as an issue. In the Southern states that were most pro-slavery, arguments were asserted against ratifying the Constitution on the ground that it was not a pro-slavery document. Those in the South who supported ratification argued that the Constitution was pro-slavery. In the North, the opposite occurred, with opponents arguing that the Constitution was pro-slavery and proponents arguing that it was anti-slavery.

    The reviewer makes one interesting point, suggesting that Madison may have doctored his notes. I think she overlooks that he was not the only person who took notes although, quite clearly, he kept the most complete set of notes. The reviewer may of course have this point correct, most especially since there is no way to prove what actually occurred during a closed door conference. On the other hand, it is worth asking what a Virginian like Madison had to gain by providing evidence contrary, at the time he released his notes, to the economic interests of the state where he lived. Which is to say, slavery was more entrenched in Virginia forty years after the Constitution was ratified than it was in the late 18th Century.

    I’ll note one more point: I noted rather significantly above – and I requote myself, so you see that I am not making things up – that I do not read books in order to validate or repudiate the views of an author. Rather, I read books to gather in information. I wrote:

    ” I, for one, don’t read history books with reference to whether or not I agree with an author. I read books to add to the stock of my knowledge and where a book brings facts to bear to make a point, I pay close attention to those facts, regardless of whether I agree with the author.”

    I meant what I wrote.

    Comment by Neal — January 29, 2020 @ 1:36 pm

  7. While it does not alter the point I was making, I note that Madison, in fact, died several years before his notes on the Constitutional convention were released so my above comment technically contains an error. Be that as it may, it still, as I noted, would not have made much sense for him or any editor to change his notes so that they would suggest that he was more opposed to slavery. That strikes me as a fantasy cooked up to discredit his evidently complicated and, given that he owned slaves, likely hypocritical views that seemed, based on his notes, to be in opposition to slavery.

    Which is to say, the views he expressed, if his notes are to be believed, have quite a bit in common with those of Jefferson. And Jefferson, quite clearly, had hypocritical views about slavery. If Wilentz is to be believed, Madison (and Jefferson) held views rather typical of people of their social status and wealth. Maybe so. The reviewer, however, seems interested in trashing a very good book that provides substantial support for the argument it makes – but, of course, not for the different issues about which the reviewer would instead have written.

    Comment by Neal — January 29, 2020 @ 6:13 pm


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