Princeton's Sean Wilentz wins the 2021 Cooley Book Prize

The Georgetown Center for the Constitution honors his book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Here is the press release:

The Georgetown Center for the Constitution will award its 2021 Thomas M. Cooley Book Prize of $50,000 to Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton University for his book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018). Mr. Wilentz will receive the Cooley Prize at an award ceremony in the Spring of 2021. The evening event will also feature the Thomas M. Cooley Judicial Lecture, to be delivered by the Honorable Neomi Rao of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The Center's faculty director, Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett, explained the decision:

Sean Wilentz's timely book strikes at the now-conventional wisdom that the U.S. Constitution endorsed slavery or "property in man." Wilentz describes how the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 propelled a powerful antislavery movement. Wilentz meticulously shows that antislavery forces at the Constitutional Convention successfully resisted slaveholders' persistent efforts to include language that would expressly legitimate the concept of "property in man."

He then traces how the wording of the Declaration and the Constitution were effectively used by an increasingly assertive antislavery movement in the 19th Century. This agitation culminated in the formation of the antislavery Republican Party with a platform consciously designed to implement the Declaration's principles while remaining faithful to the Constitution's text. The victory of the Republican platform at the polls in 1860 immediately triggered Southern secession and the civil war that culminated in the formal amendment that ended slavery in the United States. This is a narrative that all Americans today need to know.

The previous Cooley Prize winners were:

Congratulations to Professor Wilentz. You don't have to wait until 2021 to buy and read his important book!

Advertisement

NEXT: Recent Books on the Constitution

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. How do we get tickets to the conference?

  2. I find Wilentz’s thesis to be blatantly racist. He is covering for the enslavement of millions of Americans.

    The framers didn’t avoid using the word “slavery” because they were secret abolitionists. They did it because they knew slavery was a moral abomination and that history would cream them if they admitted openly what they were putting in the Constitution, knew racist historians like Wilentz would cover for them, but were having too much fun and making too much money owning slaves to give the practice up.

    It’s sad that a racist tract would win prizes in 2020.

    1. I find Wilentz’s thesis to be blatantly racist.

      That’s really really really stupid.

      No, wait. Really, really, really, really, really stupid.

      You know who else was “blatantly racist” by your really, really, really, really, really stupid standard? Frederick Douglass.

      1. Frederick Douglass telling a lie (which he knew to be a lie) in the service of a larger truth- trying to convince people to recognize the equality of his people. Dr. King told a version of the same lie. It’s essentially a technique of using the framers’ lies against their policy preferences, and holding them to them.

        But Sean Wilentz isn’t a Black man trying to free his people, but a white historian trying to keep Black historians out of his business. That’s completely non-comparable.

        1. Frederick Douglass’s take on the constitution was pretty much identical with that of Abraham Lincoln (as can be seen by reading the Peoria Speech of 1854). So how are we to judge Honest Abe? Was he, like Douglass, engaging in a noble lie in order to further the equality of black people, or was he just another racist trying to cover up the white supremacist roots of the constitution?

          1. Again, you need to separate the issue of politicians’ and public figures’ rhetoric and what was actually true.

            Nobody can actually read the three fifths compromise or the fugitive slave clause and say “gee, the purpose of this was to outlaw slavery”. And that’s before you even get into all the structural protections for slavery like the composition of the Senate. The Constitution was obviously a pro-slavery document.

            So the issue of “why would politicians and public figures lie about this?” is an interesting question that has an answer having to do with how political rhetoric works. But it doesn’t have anything to do with what the Constitution actually said and meant.

        2. trying to keep Black historians out of his business.

          [Citation needed.]

  3. From the OP above : “Wilentz meticulously shows that antislavery forces at the Constitutional Convention successfully resisted slaveholders’ persistent efforts to include language that would expressly legitimate the concept of “property in man.”

    Granted. But slavery forces beat back an attempt to ban the importation of humans as property, won the right to have slaves counted as three-fifths of a human being, and got a fugitive slave clause to assure their “property in man” would be returned as property from free states or territories.

    There are a lot of good arguments saying The 1619 Project from the New York Times is history distorted by spin. Well that’s also the impression I get here. What “powerful antislavery movement” was created by the Declaration of Independence of 1776? Southern gentlemen like Jefferson, Madison and Washington were always good for a loud theatrical sigh over the repugnance of slavery, even while they fought tooth&nail to protect it. Northern states cared – but only as long as caring carried no cost. Seventy years after the Constitution Convention slavery was significantly more entrenched than ever.

    Maybe we need less spin and more history?

    1. Seventy years after the Constitution Convention slavery was significantly more entrenched than ever.

      Not exactly. In fact, it had been abolished in many states in which it had existed at the time of the convention.

      1. You can argue that. However, where slavery still existed I believe it was entrenched to a greater degree than at the time of the Constitutional Convention – particularly in the deep South. The same could be said true in the U.S. as a whole (by extension).

        1. I wouldn’t disagree that it was more entrenched in the south. (Not just the Deep South, either — look at the rejection of compensated emancipation in Delaware in 1862, even though there was very little slavery in the state.)

    2. Your citation of the three-fifths clause as proof of the constitution’s pro-slavery character disqualifies you for being taken seriously on the subject. The pro-slavery forces wanted slaves to be counted as five-fifths of a person. Counting them as three-fifths of a person was an anti-slavery move, meant to reduce the power of slaveholders in Congress. If you don’t understand that, you are too ignorant to have any business talking about the constituion. If you *do* understand it, then you are too dishonest to have any business talking about the constitution.

      1. I’m guessing you often miss the big picture, right? So let me walk you through things very slowly and we’ll see if you’re “too dishonest” to admit your mistake.

        1. The original post above claimed the United States Constitution was unsullied by slavery. Quote : “Wilentz meticulously shows that antislavery forces at the Constitutional Convention successfully resisted slaveholders’ persistent efforts to include language that would expressly legitimate the concept of property in man.” See? The key phrase here is “expressly legitimate”.

        2. A constitutional provision which holds some people as three-fifths of a human being does expressly legitimize the institution of slavery.

        Maybe you’re so wrapped in whatever corner of the political spectrum you occupy that you can’t see how grotesque that provision is. Maybe you’re just dumb. But now I’ve shown you, perhaps you can see how it undercuts the entire argument that the Constitution was kept free and protected from the stain of slavery.

        1. My bad. I see the light and now recognize that the constitution was “stained” by a provision meant to decrease the power of slaveholders. It would have been much purer and unstained if the 3/5 clause had been omitted, and if slaveholders could therefore have chosen an even greater number of members the House of Representatives and Electoral College.

          1. The three-fifths compromise only “decreases” the power of slaveholders if you think the baseline is that the white congressmen represented the interests of the Black slaves.

            But that obviously isn’t true. Those white southern congressmen all owned and raped slaves. They didn’t give a crap about the slaves’ welfare except as an investment.

            So the actual baseline was that if slavery had to be legal (as the Constitution intended), the population counts should be based on free people only, because those were the only people those white congressmen were actually representing. The three-fifths compromise thus increased dramatically the Slave Power and was very much an attempt to ensure that slavery remain in place for the long term.

            1. “Those white southern congressmen all owned and raped slaves. They didn’t give a crap about the slaves’ welfare except as an investment.

              As opposed to Northern Industry where the factory owner didn’t even have an investment in his employees and hence cared even less about their welfare. Fun fact: 50% of telephone linemen died on the job, and before automatic couplers, it was about the same for railroad workers.

              And because of racism, there likely was more raping of teenaged employees in the north.

  4. A similar point with a slightly different focus : Much criticism of The 1619 Project focuses on its claim of American exceptionalism regarding slavery. Its theory chattel slavery was integral to all of American thought & politics (in a way unique to this country alone) distorts U.S. history the critics say.

    Fine. But doesn’t Professor Wilentz (and similar historians) just push a panglossian mirror-opposite exceptionalism? From the post above : “He then traces how the wording of the Declaration and the Constitution were effectively used by an increasingly assertive antislavery movement in the 19th Century.”

    Antislavery movements developed in every single western country where slavery existed, and most of those nations didn’t need a catastrophic civil war to eliminate the practice. Somehow this happened throughout the world in countless places where the Constitution held no sway.

    When I hear U.S. high ideals led to the end of slavery, it suggests an analogy. A church-goer beats his wife for forty years while attending services. He then stops, saying it’s against God. You can say religion reformed him, but that ain’t saying very much, is it?

    Less spin; more history.

    1. Hear, hear.

    2. Yep. Indeed, most developed countries managed to ban slavery far sooner than we did, which suggests that maybe the Constitution was what any 10 year old who reads it can see- a pro-slavery tract that entrenches slavery in place with legal and political structures. Or at least that was the part that mattered. Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence didn’t stop a single slave from being raped (including by Jefferson himself).

    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5VMZqgVzRo

      I teach the concurrent practice of company towns where employees were paid in script good only at the (overpriced) company store, with employees unable to leave until they paid the debt.

      Which form of slavery is an open question.

      1. Which form of slavery was worse is an open question.

  5. I read the book, which I suspect several of the commenters here did not. If you are interested in the subject you should read it. Although it’s not easy reading, it does provide an interesting perspective on American thought about slavery from the Founding to the Civil War. It most certainly does not try to excuse the continued existence of slavery during that period. Quite the contrary. However, the award citation goes a bit overboard in saying that the book describes “how the wording of the Declaration and the Constitution were effectively used by an increasingly assertive antislavery movement in the 19th Century.” Yes, that’s there; but what’s even more prominent is the story of how pro-slavery advocates misused the language of the Constitution to provide support for slavery that the Framers never intended.

    1. I admit I’m relying solely on the description above, which my not be fair

    2. It most certainly does not try to excuse the continued existence of slavery during that period. Quite the contrary.

      Since the farmers were almost all slaveholders who enjoyed and loved owning and raping their slaves, ANY historical work that says they didn’t like slavery is telling lies in the service of racism.

      I would no more read Wilentz than I would read Mein Kampf. Slavery stole the lives of 4,000,000 Black Americans. It was a moral abomination and I am not at all interested in any white historians who attack Black people who are finally trying to tell that story accurately.

    3. es, that’s there; but what’s even more prominent is the story of how pro-slavery advocates misused the language of the Constitution to provide support for slavery that the Framers never intended.

      The notion that any framer who owed slaves (as most of them did) didn’t support slavery is absolute offensive to Black people.

      These people owned slaves. They lazed around the house while their workers were whipped. They sold off their workers’ children. They kept the little girls and raped them over and over again from a young age.

      That is, objectively, supporting slavery. Doing all that and then pretending, in constitutional deliberations, that you don’t really mean it is not something that should convince any intelligent person. It certainly wouldn’t have convinced any of the slaves. Nobody asked them about what they thought about any of this, or gave them any voice at the constitutional convention.

      So much of this is about just not giving a crap about what happened to 4,000,000 Americans. They don’t count to you or to Wilentz.

      1. The notion that any framer who owed slaves (as most of them did) didn’t support slavery is absolute offensive to Black people.

        Dilan Esper, Speaker For the Blacks.

      2. “They lazed around the house while their workers were whipped. They sold off their workers’ children. They kept the little girls and raped them over and over again from a young age.”

        I’d like to see an objective study of how much of that really happened, particularly the raping. Most of these men were married and wives tend to resent their husbands sleeping with other women. As to Jefferson, his wife had died before the alleged Hemmings affair.

        And of the sex, how much was consensual? At least by 19th Century, pre-feminist standards…

  6. Sean Wilentz has done more damage to the history profession than any historian since Arthur Schlesinger Jr, court historian for the Kennedy’s who covered up all of JFK’s misdeeds from his women to “Operation Mongoose.” Wilentz is exhibit one why politicians distrust historians. In 1998 he conned 400 historians into signing a full page ad in the New York Times arguing that you can’t impeach a president for lying to a federal grand jury, because Clinton was lying about sex, and everybody lies about sex. He then misled Congress by testifying against impeachment as an objective historian, when he was working with the Clinton defense team. Finally, earlier this year, he conned more than 700 historians into signing a letter that Trump must be impeached and removed from office because, well, because Trump. Every time a Republican becomes president, you can count on Wilentz writing an article for a non-scholarly magazine about why they are the worst president in the history of the republic. In short, he’s a political hack. I’m betting that when he realizes that Judge Naomi Rao (Sheldon Whitehouse’s favorite) will be giving the lecture, he will find an excuse not to show up.

  7. Thomas M. Cooley? Look him up folks. His treatises were from the 19th Century, with a brief propping up of his corpse in 1924.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.