Another Critique of Wilentz

Professor Daniel Crofts, the eminent professor of history at the College of New Jersey, added his critique of Professor Sean Wilentz’s article in the New York Times we previously discussed. Unfortunately, he’s also the latest to misinterpret what Professor Wilentz wrote. Professor Crofts writes, “The South insisted that ‘property in humans’ enjoyed national sanction, Wilentz argues, but the North denied the South’s claims and went to war to defend an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution. The evidence shows, instead, that other matters took priority. Divergent Northern and Southern understandings of the Constitution did not start the war.” Later in the article, Professor Crofts writes, “However divisive these constitutional disagreements, they did not send men into battle. A struggle for political power, together with popular fears roused by overheated political rhetoric, stood at the center of the North-South dispute and fueled the polarization that sparked the war.”

Professor Wilentz actually wrote, “Civil War began over a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery — property in humans — in national law? Southern slaveholders, inspired by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, charged that it did and that the Constitution was proslavery; Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it. After Lincoln’s election to the presidency, 11 Southern states seceded to protect what the South Carolina secessionists called their constitutional ‘right of property in slaves.’ ” Do you see the fundamental difference between Professor Croft’s interpretation of what Professor Wilentz wrote and what Professor Wilentz actually wrote? Professor Wilentz says the ideological conflict is between Lincoln, the Republicans, and abolitionists and the eleven secessionist states while Professor Crofts interprets Professor Wilentz as saying the ideological conflict was between “the North” and “the South.” Nowhere does Professor Wilentz claim the Federal forces were in the war specifically to defend the constitutional interpretation that the Constitution did not recognize property in humans in national law. However, he does say the secessionists acted to secede to defend their interpretation that the Constitution did indeed recognize property in humans in national law. One need only read the Declarations of Causes and other writings and statements of the secessionists to see the truth of that claim.

What about the “struggle for political power?” Let’s ask ourselves why the slave states wanted that political power. They wanted it to protect the institution of slavery. What was the “overheated political rhetoric” about? It was about the protection of the institution of slavery and about the “constitutional rights” of the slave states. Again, one need only read the words of the secessionists to see that.

Professor Crofts tells us, “Antislavery Northerners believed the South wielded too much power in the Union. The Republican Party coalesced in the 1850s to roll back the ‘Slave Power’ and prevent it from seizing western territories. Republicans campaigned to evict the Southern-dominated Democratic Party from its stranglehold on national office. They vowed to enable the free white men of the North to gain the political muscle to which their numbers entitled them.” This is all true; however, it’s also axiomatic that political parties seek to gain power so they can implement their policies. Simply the fact that one party gains power doesn’t cause a war. It depends on what is at stake when that party gains power. The Republicans wanted to cut off expansion of slavery into the territories primarily because they were an antislavery party. You can see the speeches of Abraham Lincoln where he compares slavery to a snake in a cradle. He says you don’t hit the snake when it’s in the cradle with the baby because it might bite the baby, but if it’s in a cradle where the baby is going to be put, then you kill the snake before the baby is put in the cradle.

Professor Crofts is right when he says the Federals weren’t fighting because of an interpretation of the Constitution regarding property in people. They fought primarily for Union. But the main factor that led to confederate secession was their view that protection of slavery was their constitutional right and it was being infringed upon. The Republicans and many abolitionists disagreed with them, and thus when the Republicans came to power, the secessionists made the rational choice to secede to protect slavery.



  1. I’m not sure I ever saw that rather clever ‘snake in the cradle’ parable before. Do you know which speech it is from?

    Other than painting with a bit too broad a brush, is Crofts all that far off?

    1. Lincoln used that metaphor a number of times, Bert. Here’s one example, his speech at New Haven, March 6, 1860:
      [begin quote]
      The other policy is one that squares with the idea that Slavery is wrong, and it consists in doing everything that we ought to do if it is wrong. Now, I don’t wish to be misunderstood, nor to leave a gap down to be misrepresented, even. I don’t mean that we ought to attack it where it exists. To me it seems that if we were to form a government anew, in view of the actual presence of Slavery we should find it necessary to frame just such a government as our fathers did; giving to the slaveholder the entire control where the system was established, while we possessed the power to restrain it from going outside those limits. [Applause.] From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us; and, surely, if they have so made it, that adds another reason why we should let Slavery alone where it exists.

      If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]

      That is just the case! The new Territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not. It does not seem as if there could be much hesitation what our policy should be! [Applause.]
      [end quote]

      As to Professor Crofts, the biggest problem I have with his essay is he criticizes Professor Wilentz for something Professor Wilentz didn’t really say. I think he interprets Professor Wilentz’s saying the different constitutional interpretations leading to the war as a claim that both sides fought specifically over those different interpretations. That’s a misinterpretation as I read things.

  2. Kenneth Almquist · · Reply

    “But the main factor that led to confederate secession was their view that protection of slavery was their constitutional right and it was being infringed upon. The Republicans and many abolitionists disagreed with them, and thus when the Republicans came to power, the secessionists made the rational choice to secede to protect slavery.”

    I disagree. The secession documents draw inspiration from the Declaration of Independence. For example, the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union asserts that:

    “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

    This list of grievances does include denying “the rights of property…recognized by the Constitution,” but as far as I can tell this is a complaint that states were failing to abide by the fugitive slave clause, and the Republicans (or at least Lincoln) agreed that the Constitution required fugitive slaves to be returned to their supposed owners.

    The document does go on to warn that:

    “On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”

    This passage doesn’t specify what Consitutional guarantees will be lost. The “equal rights of the states” presumably refers to the right of each state to decide for itself whether to allow the institution of slavery.

    In short, any disagreements that the writers may have had with Lincoln’s interpretation of the Constitution were not important enough to the writers to be worth spelling out clearly. The main point of the declaration is that slavery cannot survive indefinitely within the Union, and that South Carolina is seceding for that reason.

    Of course South Carolina wants to claim that the Founding Fathers and the Constitution that they wrote support South Carolina’s position, but its attempts at this are pretty feeble. I think that the fundamental difference that led to the Civil War was one over policy and morality: Should slavery be expanded, or should it be contained and eventually eliminated? I think that differences over Constitutional interpretation, to the extent they existed, were the result of people trying to use the Constitution to justify their preferred policy on slavery.

    1. Go back and reread them. They all claim constitutional violations on issues dealing with slavery.

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