Wednesday, September 30, 2015

History gets active in the United States

Democratic Party presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders, responding to the Black Lives Matter campaign against police killings of black Americans, recently declared that the United States was founded "on racist principles."

To which the rest of the world would probably have said, "Duh!"  But the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, a strong supporter of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, responded with a New York Times op-ed declaring that it was not so and proclaiming that the idea of the United States founded on racial slavery is "a myth."
Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.
Turns out that in the United States, the history blogosphere lives. There has been an outpouring of online responses from historians to Wilentz's argument.  The blog We're History, by a collective of Americanists, has been all over it, and at History News Network, Matthew Pinsker offers Wilentz's initial response to his critics and links to other Wilentz statements on slavery and the constitution -- as well as to Pinsker's own blog posts on how to teach the subject and the controversy.

Wilentz attributes opposition to his position mostly to
scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past.
and he may be right that the history bloggers who have seized on the issue are not a representative sample of the political affiliations of all American historians. And few of his critics have access to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, probably.  Still good to see the liveliness of the HistBlog down there and the engagement of historians in live issues.

Photo: from We're History
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