The 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Naturally, that reframing has enjoyed quite a bit of pushback, much of which amounts to wrestling over whether the US Constitution, as originally written and ratified, was designed around the goal of protecting the institution of slavery.
“Nikole Hannah-Jones and other 1619 acolytes,” Dr. Brion McClanahan writes at the Tenth Amendment Center, “have been consistently pushing the idea that the Constitution was a ‘pro-slavery’ document.”
McClanahan disagrees — and not just with Hannah-Jones, but also with the namesake of the institution I write for. American abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison referred to “the pro-slavery” Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” calling for “no Union with slaveholders.”
“The Constitution,” McClanahan claims, “was neither proslavery nor anti-slavery. It was neutral. … slavery was left up to the constituent members of the Union.”
There’s no kind way to put this: McClanahan manages to get it completely wrong even while mentioning the evidence of his error and admitting that that evidence (“the 3/5 clause, the fugitive slave clause, the 20 year lease [sic] on the international slave trade”) “at least seem[s]” to disprove his claim.
It doesn’t “seem” to disprove his claim. It disproves his claim, completely and beyond redemption.
A document which specifically gives additional representation to slave owners based on how many slaves they own is not “neutral” where slavery is concerned. It’s not just pro-slavery, it’s foundational social engineering in favor of giving slavery’s supporters a permanent extra measure of political power.
A document which singles out fugitive slaves as the only “stolen property” specifically required be returned (from states where that property ISN’T legally property) is not “neutral” where slavery is concerned. It’s exactly the opposite of the “states’ rights” doctrine McClanahan invokes (without naming) on his “neutrality” argument’s behalf. It’s a federal intervention against such “states’ rights.”
The Constitution offered one, and only one, temporary exception to Congress’s power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations.” Want to guess what that one exception was? It wasn’t importation of coffee or linen or foie gras. It was importation of slaves. That’s not “neutral,” that’s pro-slavery.
There are worthwhile arguments to be had over the extent and longevity of institutional racism in American history, and we’re certainly having those arguments in a big way right now. But this isn’t one of those worthwhile arguments.
Where the Constitution touches on slavery, it was, irrefutably and beyond a shadow of doubt, crafted for the benefit of slave owners and with the goal of perpetuating slavery.
Falsifying our history isn’t a sound way of improving our future.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.