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Illusions’ of the Founders

In response to:

Reading the Founders' Minds from the June 28, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

I was extremely disappointed that, in his review of Dark Bargain [NYR, June 28], Gordon Wood chose to excise minor arguments and treat them as central, while ignoring the book’s actual themes. With John Rutledge, for example, I focused on his chairmanship of the Committee of Detail, five delegates who were chosen by their peers to draft a prototype constitution. As anyone in business or government knows, creating the working document—Madison’s Virginia Plan was, rather, an unsolicited submission—is a position of enormous influence and power. That Rutledge, an unapologetic defender of slavery, was selected to chair that committee, I found telling. Madison, on the other hand, was specifically excluded. The delegates needed a Virginian and chose the malleable Edmund Randolph instead. Not only does Dr. Wood fail to address Madison’s absence, he avoids any mention of the Committee of Detail at all.

In another instance, to demonstrate my naiveté, Dr. Wood cites a famous quote by Madison, which asserts that everyone knew the most significant rift was not between large and small states, but between slave states and free. He insists Madison was merely throwing out a red herring to distract the delegates from the large/small division. But nowhere in his voluminous writings did Madison ever indicate he was bluffing. Quite the contrary. I, therefore, took Madison at his word—Dr. Wood claimed to read his mind. Dr. Wood’s credentials are without peer, but I was unaware that they confer upon him a license to clairvoyance.

I could not agree more that “we have to try to rid ourselves of our knowledge of what happened in the succeeding decades.” Another pivotal theme of Dark Bargain was the expectation, never realized, of population trending south and west, thereby providing southern states with a future majority in both houses of Congress. Proslavery delegates were thus very much playing for time in Philadelphia, with definite consequences that I discussed at length. The debate as to whether to initiate a national census, for example, was along sectional lines. Once again, no mention in the review.

Finally, I noted that the distinction between the tobacco-growing Upper South and rice-intensive Lower South caused them to have opposing views of the slave trade, providing a fulcrum for savvy northerners to pry out commercial concessions. No discussion from Dr. Wood.

That Dr. Wood would spend so much energy avoiding the issue—particularly with an author he dismisses as an amateur—leads me to believe that it is the source and not the treatment that disturbs him the most.

Lawrence Goldstone

Westport, Connecticut

Gordon S. Wood replies:

The issue raised by Goldstone’s book is not the importance of slavery to the United States and to the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787; that importance is indisputable. The issue is rather whether slavery was as important as Goldstone claims it was. In other words, has he got the proportions of the story correct? No doubt John Rutledge was a significant figure in the deal-making, particularly between the South Carolina and Connecticut delegations, that led to the compromises over apportionment and the regulation of commerce. But was he the real “Father of the Constitution,” as Goldstone contends? For Goldstone to overthrow the scholarly consensus that James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” he is going to have to mount more evidence than he has in this book.

On July 24, 1787, the Committee of Detail was given the task of bringing some order out of the resolutions the convention had already passed. The report the committee issued on August 6 was significant, and it certainly reflected a strong southern influence. But it is an overstatement to call it “a prototype constitution” and the real “working document” for the convention, compared to which Madison’s Virginia Plan was merely “an unsolicited submission.” Edmund Randolph, who had introduced the Virginia Plan, wrote the first draft of the committee’s report, which was then revised by James Wilson. Apparently Rutledge was not entirely in charge. During the subsequent debates in the convention, including the report of a new, larger committee, the proposals made by the Committee of Detail were substantially revised. In the end Rutledge and the other delegates from the Deep South did not get what they wanted: unlimited control of the slave trade and the requirement of a two-thirds majority for all navigation acts.

My judgment about Madison’s tactics with his speech about the free–slave split is based on my contextual knowledge of what Madison was most concerned about in the convention. Such judgments are not “clairvoyance”; they are what historians are supposed to do. No doubt there were southern delegates in South Carolina and Georgia who were playing for time in the convention, thinking that population growth and movement were on their side; but there is no evidence that the other southern delegates shared any sense that the future belonged to slavery. In reality, like most people in the past and present, many of the Founders had illusions about the future: in the Virginians’ case, at least at the outset in the 1780s and early 1790s, that slavery was on its last legs and would naturally die away.

Goldstone seems to think that I dismiss him as an amateur since he lacks academic credentials. I don’t know where he gets this notion, since I have the greatest respect (and have said so in print) for the so-called “amateur” historians writing today—historians who have no academic appointment, such as David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Thomas Fleming, and Stacy Schiff. Not only do these nonacademic scholars write some of the best history we have, even about periods on which they have hitherto not been experts, but they are the real professionals, since they live by their writings and not by any academic position. My criticism of Goldstone’s book had nothing to do with the fact that he doesn’t have an academic appointment and had not written about the eighteenth century before.

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