A conservative student organization has flagged a quiz at Vanderbilt University where students were asked “Was the Constitution designed to perpetuate white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery?” A student who answered “false” was marked wrong by the professor. The class is taught by Professors Josh Clinton, Eunji Kim, Jon Meacham, and Dean John Geer entitled PSCI 1150: U. S. ELECTIONS 2020. Meacham is a regular guest on MSNBC and CNN and other networks as well as a contributing editor for The New York Times Book Review.
The question posed to students is shown below: “Was the Constitution designed to perpetuate white supremacy and protect the institutional of slavery?
The faculty would only accept “true” as the answer.
The statement is wrong on a number of levels. There is no question the Constitution did not end our deeply shameful history of slavery. However, even with the Declaration of Independence figures like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson sought to address slavery. The decision was made to accommodate slave states to secure the Declaration. The same political calculus was behind the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise found in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution.
Thus, the Constitution did indeed perpetuate and protect the institution of slavery with its inherent white supremacy values. However, that was not the “design” of the Constitution. The Three-Fifths Compromise was a fight over representation and taxation. The decision to leave slavery unaddressed was based on the same political expediency. It was wrong. It is no excuse to secure the independence of most citizens at the cost of leaving enslaved others. It was and remains the original sin of our nation. The design of our Constitution should have guaranteed freedom for all men and women.
Yet, the actual design of the Constitution was the Madisonian vision of shared and limited government. It was founded on the philosophical work of figures ranging from John Locke to Montesquieu. The assertion that the design was to perpetuate slavery is revisionist and wrong.
Notably, one can teach the transcendent issue over slavery — and its perpetuation under the Constitution — without rewriting history to fit this narrative. It is also troubling that these professors would penalize students who hold an alternative view. Even if this were arguably correct, it would be at best a question upon which many would disagree. The question comes across as a reinforced group think or orthodoxy — a rising concern for many of us in higher education.
Indeed, Meacham has previously stated that the Constitution was designed to achieve democratic change and evolution:
“It’s about openness to changing circumstances and data. If you can’t recognize that circumstances have shifted and a preexisting opinion is worth revising, you can’t be an heir of 1776. Woodrow Wilson said the Constitution was supposed to be Newtonian, but was in fact Darwinian. Its genius was to change and evolve. If we can’t change and evolve as citizens and leaders, then we are undoing the American Revolution. The road to totalitarianism lies in unquestioning certitude.”
Meacham has repeatedly stressed that the design was meant to institutionalize gradual democratic change. He agreed with the assertion that “America’s Founders wrote a Constitution designed to make change a slow and deliberative process.” He stated “Yes, they did, and it has served us rather well over time—not perfectly, God knows, but it has enabled us to muddle [ … ]”