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Reading the Founders’ Minds

It is a truism that history writing tends to reflect the times in which it is written. All history is “contemporary history,” wrote the Italian historian Benedetto Croce, by which he meant that history is seen mainly through the eyes of the present and in relation to its problems. The distinguished American historian Bernard Bailyn agrees that history writing is not mere antiquarianism; he is keenly aware of the present’s need to relate to the past and the power of that need in stimulating historical inquiry and writing. “There is always,” he writes, “a need to extract from the past some kind of bearing on contemporary problems, some message, commentary, or instruction to the writer’s age, and to see reflected in the past familiar aspects of the present.” But without “critical control,” this need, says Bailyn, “generates an obvious kind of presentism, which at its worst becomes indoctrination by historical example.”1

Thus at the beginning of the twentieth century when class conflict was rife—poor versus rich, western farmers versus eastern merchants, soft money versus hard money—it was not surprising that history writing about the American Revolution and the formation of the Constitution tended to express these turbulent social circumstances. Historians like Carl Becker and Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote about class conflict in the Revolution and Charles Beard attempted to show that the Constitution grew out of a struggle between different kinds of property interests.

Since our greatest domestic issue over the past half-century has been race relations, it was inevitable that historians would look back at the sources of our race problem and write the fullest and richest accounts of slavery in America that we have ever seen. It was inevitable too that our recent accounts of the Revolution and the founding of the nation would reflect our increased understanding of the importance of slavery to the history of America. Indeed, there is hardly a book now written about the founding of the nation that does not place the problem of slavery at its center. So in recent years we have had Leonard L. Richards’s The Slave Power (2000); Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic (2001); Paul Finkelman’s Slavery and the Founders (2001); Garry Wills’s “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003); Alfred W. Blumrosen’s and Ruth G. Blumrosen’s Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (2005); and Gary Nash’s Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (2006). Now we have these additional two books under review to help satisfy the seemingly insatiable desire of many historians today to place slavery at the heart of America’s origins.

Thanks to the works of these historians and many others, we now know more about slavery and the founding of the nation than previous generations of historians ever thought possible. But is all this new historical knowledge true to the reality of the past? Have the historians who have written these works exercised Bailyn’s “critical control” and avoided distorting the past with their present-minded concerns?

No one can deny the importance of slavery to the development of early America. Of the total American population of two and a half million on the eve of Independence, one fifth—500,000 men, women, and children—was enslaved. The most populous colony, Virginia, had the most slaves—200,000, or 40 percent of its population. Although most slaves lived in the Southern colonies, slavery was not inconsequential in the North. Fourteen percent of New York’s population was enslaved. New Jersey held 8 percent and Rhode Island held 6 percent of their populations in lifetime hereditary bondage. Northerners, especially Rhode Islanders, were also deeply involved in the international slave trade. Slavery existed throughout the colonies, and nearly every white American colonist directly or indirectly benefited from it.

It is also important, however, to provide some historical setting for understanding the omnipresence of slavery in colonial America. We need to know just how cruel and brutal the eighteenth-century ancien régime was in the years before the Revolution—cruel and brutal in a multitude of ways. Not only was there black slavery, but many whites were denied freedom and kept in various degrees of dependency. Indeed, the ubiquity of servitude in that patriarchal age tended to blur the conspicuousness of black slavery, especially in the North. Many masters regarded their white servants as “filth and scum,” “miserable wretches,” and “insolent young Scoundrels,” and sometimes treated them as harshly as masters treated their African slaves. A drunken and abusive servant being transported by ship to Virginia in the 1770s, for example, was horsewhipped, put in irons and thumbscrewed, and then gagged for a night and handcuffed for nine days.

Of course, such harsh treatment of white servants was rare compared to the ferocity with which some eighteenth-century masters treated their slaves. Regarding the African slaves as little more than animals, the slaveholders bought them at market, branded them, sometimes gave them names ordinarily reserved for dogs and horses, and bridled, haltered, and punished them as if they were domesticated livestock. Still, “the similarities in the treatment of slaves and servants, and in attitudes toward slaves and the poor,” writes Philip D. Morgan, the distinguished historian of early American slavery, “help explain how the overwhelming majority of Anglo-Americans took slavery for granted.”2

Indeed, the fact that slavery had been taken for granted for thousands of years prior to the mid-eighteenth century must be the starting point in any assessment of its influence on early American politics and nationhood. With the exception of some isolated people with strong principles, especially Quakers, few Americans prior to the Revolutionary era seriously questioned the institution of slavery. It was the Revolution and its emphasis on liberty that made slavery a problem for Americans.

Lawrence Goldstone, who is the author (with his wife Nancy) of several works of history on subjects other than early America, begins his book Dark Bargain with a brief overview of the ways the interpretations of the origins of the Constitution have changed over the past two hundred years; he writes that “the manner in which Americans have viewed the document is to a great extent a parallel of the manner in which the nation has viewed both itself and the role of slavery in its history.”

Few historians of the Constitution, he says, have paid proper attention to the importance of slavery. Instead of describing the politics of slavery in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, most present-day scholars of the Constitution, he complains, have been too caught up in philosophical abstractions. Recent accounts of the framing of the Constitution, he writes, have focused so exclusively on ideas that they have turned the document into nothing more than “a product of theory.” By concentrating on the thinking of “a small number of cerebral delegates—Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, or even the recently resurrected Gouverneur Morris,” present-day historians and political theorists have concluded that these few men “produced virtually the entire document among themselves.”

Goldstone wants to correct this mistaken emphasis on ideas and theories in the making of the Constitution by describing it as the consequence of pragmatic politics, most of it involving slavery. “The story of the forging of the Constitution is as much a study of the forces and factors that comprised American life as it is a stringing together of the political theories of Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin.” Slavery was at the heart of the making of the Constitution. “Of all the issues that would arise in Philadelphia,” he says, “the one that evoked the most passion, the one that left the least possibility of compromise, the one that would most pit morality against pragmatism, was the question of slavery.”

To concentrate our attention on the issue of slavery Goldstone introduces several characters who he thinks have been relatively ignored in the story of the convention, including Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman of Connecticut and especially John Rutledge of South Carolina. Indeed, Rutledge is Goldstone’s real hero. “If one man can truly be deemed Father of the Constitution, at least at the convention,” he writes, “it is Rutledge.” Rutledge, says Goldstone, made the Constitution a proslavery document.

Rutledge was the crucial person in bringing together the slaveholders of the Upper South with those of the Deep South in order to convince the Northern delegates to agree that slaves would be counted as three fifths of a person for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives and the electoral college. He was also the central figure in fashioning a compromise with Northerners, principally Ellsworth and Sherman, on protecting the slave trade for twenty years and on the regulation and taxing of overseas trade. It was Rutledge, Goldstone claims, who “put South Carolina on the winning side of both contests.”

Most historians consider July 16, 1787, the decisive day in the Constitutional Convention. That was the day on which the Connecticut Compromise was adopted, which gave each state, however large or small, equal representation in the Senate. But Goldstone wants us instead to concentrate on July 12, which he considers of equal if not greater importance. That was the day on which the three-fifths compromise was adopted—a victory, he suggests, for the South and South Carolina in particular. This counting of slaves as three fifths of free persons for apportioning direct taxes and representation in Congress and the electoral college was part of the reason William Lloyd Garrison and other later abolitionists called the Constitution a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Yet, as Goldstone admits, many Southern delegates, including the entire South Carolina delegation, “had continually urged that slaves be counted in full.” In other words, many Southern delegates wanted slaves counted as five fifths for purposes of representation, which would have substantially increased the power of the South in the House of Representatives and the electoral college. By contrast, the Northern delegates preferred not to have the slaves represented at all. But South Carolina’s motion to count the slaves as five fifths of free persons was defeated by seven states to three. So the three-fifths compromise might be seen as a defeat for the Carolinians if not a victory for the Northern states.

If Goldstone is to establish Rutledge as the real father of the Constitution, he has to diminish James Madison’s role in the convention. Madison was the author of the Virginia plan, which became the working model for the convention, although it was much revised. Crucial to Madison’s plan were a veto power given to Congress over all state laws and the proportional representation for each state of its people or its financial contributions or some combination in both houses of Congress. Any kind of proportional representation, Madison believed, was preferable to representation of the states as states. Since states represented as states was what was wrong with the Articles of Confederation, Madison was convinced that retaining any semblance of state sovereignty in the new national government would vitiate it and ultimately destroy it. That’s why the convention’s rejection of his proposal for proportional representation in both houses of Congress and the adoption of the Connecticut Compromise on July 16 so deeply depressed him and other national-minded delegates. So alarmed were they by what they correctly saw as their defeat (it was no “compromise” for them) that they caucused the next day to decide whether or not to withdraw from the convention.

  1. 1

    Quoted in The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology, edited by James A. Henretta, Michael Kammen, and Stanley N. Katz (Knopf, 1991), p. 38.

  2. 2

    Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 271.

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