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The white washing of American history

September 17, 2005|Lawrence Goldstone

CONVENTIONAL wisdom in publishing these days holds that, in order to be commercial, any book on the founding of the United States has to be "a story of triumph," an 18th century "Seabiscuit." Muddying the picture by suggesting, for example, that slavery had a lot more to do with the forging of the Constitution than is generally assumed creates a story of failure. Failure does not sell.

Americans certainly have been treated to a number of rosy portrayals of the framers in recent years, although they follow two distinct and often opposing streams. First and most obvious is what academics dismissively refer to -- generally in a sentence with "McCullough" in it -- as popular history. Popularizing, it is said, stresses portraiture instead of analysis and presents a superficial, distorted, uncritical and usually Pollyannaish view of forces and events. But the second type, in which academic historians tend to overpower human history with theory and detail, yields distortions of its own and leads to a different and perhaps more insidious sort of superficiality.

In some of the most intellectually penetrating contemporary studies of the making of the Constitution, for example, even preeminent scholars such as Jack Rakove and Bernard Bailyn have chosen to focus on the clash of political ideologies rather than compromises spurred by base economic self-interest. Although their analyses are often superb, by ignoring practical realities and human frailty, the United States can appear to be a nation of citizen-philosophers standing around village greens in tricorn hats discussing John Locke, as much a caricature as updating Parson Weems.

Sanitizing American history in this fashion inevitably de-emphasizes disagreeable topics, especially the most disagreeable of all, slavery. Although a number of contemporary works have cast a fresh eye on Washington's or Jefferson's attitudes and opinions with respect to slaves, most historians still seem unwilling to face the overwhelming influence that slavery exerted, both directly and indirectly, on our most sacred national institutions. Dealing with slavery merely as part of an overall theoretic analysis distances the people from the institution, consigning slavery to the periphery, an anachronistic quirk.

But slavery was no quirk, nor was it simply a peculiarity of the times, accommodated by the North for the sake of union. It was rather one of the fundamental determinants of American life. For the rice growers of South Carolina and the tobacco planters of Virginia, slavery shaped their politics, their economies and, most important, their view of themselves, while in the North, the institution provided immense profit opportunities that shippers and merchants exploited ceaselessly.

Nor did slavery exist in shadow. Slavery was as unpleasant and repugnant a topic in 1787, as much a stain on American honor, as it is in retrospect today.

In the debates in the Constitutional Convention, more than one Northerner lamented the conditions under which "wretched Africans" lived and died, but they chose to suppress their distaste for tactical advantage. When Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and Rufus King of Massachusetts delivered long, lacerating speeches denouncing slavery, begging their fellow delegates not to encourage perpetuation of the slave trade by including three-fifths of the slaves in apportionment calculations, their Northern colleagues overwhelmingly voted them down.

Certainly it is more comfortable to read accounts that deify the framers, but deification is dangerous, particularly now. Our nation is currently engaged in an unabashed campaign to instruct people around the world on how to live. We sent the citizens of Iraq off to write a constitution, and then tried to tell them what it should say. If we are going to dictate to others what their constitutional process should be, then we should be willing to look a little more honestly at our own.

This reappraisal ought not be confined to government or academia but should include the ultimate rulers of the United States -- average citizens. If we as a nation fail to appreciate the torturous and tortuous process of forming a Constitution, we will continually blunder when trying to demand that other countries do it our way.

The Americans who drafted the Constitution were fully formed human beings, with aims both petty and grandiose. They could be alternately sophisticated or naive, manipulative or gullible. The legacy they bequeathed us was one of struggle against their own prejudices, self-interest, greed and shortsightedness in pursuit of freedom and self-rule. Ultimately, through war, rancor and bitterness, and in what would certainly have been a surprise to many of those very framers, their highest visions were realized. That is triumph enough for me.

LAWRENCE GOLDSTONE is the author, most recently, of "Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits and the Struggle for the Constitution" (Walker, October 2005).

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