Driving straight to the heart of the most contentious issue in American history, a Princeton history professor argues controversially that, far from concealing a crime against humanity, the U.S. Constitution limited slavery's legitimacy—a limitation which in time inspired the antislavery politics that led to Southern secession, the Civil War, and Emancipation.
In his revealing and passionately argued book, he insists that because the framers did not sanction slavery as a matter of principle, the antislavery legacy of the Constitution has been 'slighted' and 'misconstrued' for over 200 years ... Wilentz goes to great lengths and, at times, takes great pains to show how Northern antislavery delegates combined forces with some moderate Upper South delegates to ensure the United States 'would not validate slavery in national law' ... In the end, restoring the antislavery intent of the Constitution leaves a more perplexing question at the heart of American democracy. If it is now correct to say that America’s leaders got something right about racism in the beginning, why have they repeatedly gotten so much wrong ever since? That’s a history lesson still desperately needing to be taught.
... a stimulating study that draws on letters, speeches and public debates to enlarge our sense of slavery’s political dimension in the founding period ... In sum, Mr. Wilentz argues persuasively, the convention created the 'terrible paradox' of 'a Constitution that strengthened and protected slavery yet refused to validate it.'
Wilentz’s thoroughly researched argument serves as a useful example of solid scholarship and effective writing on a sensitive topic. It also highlights the growing importance of historians to legal studies as the federal bench fills with originalist interpreters of the Constitution. Wilentz is not an originalist himself, but the historical methods he employs here to uncover the intended meaning of the Constitution are exactly those that originalists use. Lawyers and jurists looking to develop arguments that will impress conservative judges would be well advised to study the tools Wilentz deploys to such great effect.