The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Historian Sean Wilentz had a wonderful op-ed ("Constitutionally, Slavery Is No National Institution") in the NY Times a few days ago, about what he properly refers to as the "myth" that "the United States was founded on racial slavery." It's a view of the nation's founding that, oddly and ironically, aligns many on the Left (like Bernie Sanders, whom Wilentz quotes as saying 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") with South Carolina's pre-Civil-War Senator John Calhoun, who was the staunchest and most eloquent advocate for slavery, and opposed to (among others) James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.
Wilentz points out that far from endorsing slavery as a national institution or sanctioning the practice as a matter of national law, the Constitution took a very different tack:
The Constitutional Convention not only deliberately excluded the word "slavery," but it also quashed the proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution, and so prevented enshrining the racism that justified slavery.
The property question was the key controversy. The delegates could never have created a federal union if they had given power to the national government to meddle in the property laws of the slave states. Slavery would have to be tolerated as a local institution. This hard fact, though, did not sanction slavery in national law, as a national institution, as so many critics presume. This sanction was precisely what the proslavery delegates sought with their failed machinations to ensure, as Madison wrote, that "some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves." Most of the framers expected slavery to gradually wither away. They would do nothing to obstruct slavery's demise. …
Far from a proslavery compact of "racist principles," the Constitution was based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of property in humans. Without that antislavery outcome in 1787, slavery would not have reached "ultimate extinction" in 1865.
Well worth reading - a good antidote to this myth that not only unfairly impugns the constitutional framers, but (more importantly) does serious damage to our sense of who and what we are as a nation.