Home Art & Culture Two of America’s Leading Historians Look at the Nation’s Founding Once Again — to Understand It in All Its Complexity

Two of America’s Leading Historians Look at the Nation’s Founding Once Again — to Understand It in All Its Complexity

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And, of course, even the democracy that they created was not very democratic. “We the People” did not include Black people, women or even white men who did not own land. (Still, as Wood notes, it was the most representative and participatory system in the world at the time.)

But the deepest fault was the preservation of slavery. Although the word “slavery” does not appear in the Constitution, the framers allowed the slave trade to continue till 1807 to prevent the Southern states from jumping ship. And, yet, the Constitutional Convention was the moment when America came closest to doing away with slavery until after the Civil War. Both Wood and Ellis write that the Revolution galvanized opposition to slavery not only in the North but in Virginia as well. Wood notes that the first antislavery convention in world history met in Philadelphia in 1775. After the war, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed laws eliminating the slave trade. The framers knew how hypocritical their toleration of slavery looked after talking for years about breaking free from their bondage to England.

Wood rebuts the myth that only the Southern delegates owned slaves: He notes that John Hancock of Boston, John Dickinson of Philadelphia and Robert Livingston of New York were all slave owners. But none of them were proud of it, and many Northern delegates believed the institution was withering away. “No prominent member of the Revolutionary generation,” Ellis writes, “ever attempted to argue that slavery was morally compatible with the values of the Declaration.”

Yet there was something the Revolutionary generation cared about even more than the abolition of slavery, and that was the creation of a nation. At the outset of the Constitutional Convention, the Northern delegates introduced a clause abolishing slavery. The Southern states vehemently objected, and the Northern delegates acquiesced. Why? Wood cites Madison’s despairing line: “Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse.” Ellis writes that if South Carolina had to choose between independence and retaining slavery, it would have chosen to preserve slavery. That’s a difficult position to negotiate with.

Although Wood signed a letter that was critical of some of the arguments of the 1619 Project, both he and Ellis see the problems of race and slavery as the great flaws in America’s birth. “The two abiding legacies of The Cause,” Ellis writes, “American independence and slavery established the central contradiction of American history at the very start.” What enriches these two books is their moral complexity. Despite our central contradiction, both Wood and Ellis believe in what they call a civic “small r” republicanism, a sense of public purpose built into our founding. Yes, there may be faults in our software, but the Constitution also contains a built-in self-correcting mechanism: It can be amended. The Union can be made more perfect.

Can America be truly great if we are built on a foundation that includes slavery? Both Ellis and Wood would say that while the Constitution contains that terrible defect, it also contains the cure for democracy’s wrongs — if we choose to use it.

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