Understanding The Complexities Of History

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our first guest author is Stephen Lazar, is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, who is typically teaching students Social Studies and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC, which he helped to start. This year, he is on sabbatical and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center and is one of the Shanker Institute Civics Fellows. Other posts in this series can be found here.

This is my first Constitution Day in some time where I will not be teaching high school students, since I am on sabbatical as I work towards a Ph.D. in history. When I am teaching history, there are two things I want students to understand more than anything else. First, history is complicated; things are rarely simply good or bad. Second, I want students to understand that that history is not merely a list of sequential facts. Instead, history is made up of competing interpretations. I regularly tell my students that historians, far more knowledgeable than we are, look at all the available evidence and come to different conclusions from each other. When I return to the classroom next fall, I plan to engage my students in one such disagreement in looking at the impact of the Constitution on people who were enslaved.

Increasingly over the past few years, my students have come with strong opinions on the Constitution’s relationship to the institution of slavery. This happens for a variety of reasons: engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement, watching Thirteenth on Netflix, and exposure to the growing public discourse that examines the history of racism in the United States. Whereas a decade ago, most of my students knew very little about the Constitution or had a relatively positive view of it, now a critical mass of my students strongly believe that the Constitution laid the foundation for a racist society because it was proslavery.

As I’ve been reading for my oral exams, I have been thinking a lot about a different approach to engaging students in this debate. Two of my professors, thankfully, offer a way to examine this as a debate. In their books, David Waldstreicher and James Oakes offer two different interpretations about the relationship between the Constitution and slavery. They offer a clear path for me as a teacher to design a unit that emphasizes inquiry-based learning. I’ll engage students first with Waldstreicher’s interpretation that mostly affirms their view that the Constitution was a proslavery document, but then offer them Oakes’ which challenges it. 

In his 2009 book, Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification*, David Waldstreicher shows that slavery was central to the discourse preceding and following the Constitution, as well as to the Constitution itself. His central argument is that the framers “created fundamental laws that sustained human bondage” (3). Going beyond the 3/5 Compromise, limitations on ending the slave trade, and the Fugitive Slave Clause, he shows that eight other places in the Constitution impact slavery as well. The very power to govern that the Constitution provided also established the power to govern slavery. Particularly in his examination of the ratification debates, Waldstreicher shows that slavery was far more central to the entire process of establishing the Constitution than previously acknowledged. He argues, though, that what was left unsaid was just as important, if not more so. By leaving slavery out of the Constitution explicitly—and creating a discourse that talked around enslavement, but rarely directly at it—slavery was depoliticized on the national level and thereby able to continue to exist and expand. 

Examining a later period of history in his 2021 book The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes examines the history of antislavery constitutionalism and Lincoln’s commitment to it. Lincoln and the rest of the antislavery coalition that supported the Republican Party believed “the promise of universal freedom was embodied in the Constitution” (xiv). Lincoln, his allies, and his supporters viewed the Constitution as an antislavery document. They believed they were putting slavery on the path of extinction just as the founders had planned. Oakes doesn’t deny that the 3/5 Compromise and Fugitive Slave clauses were proslavery, but he argues that there were many other places when the Constitution was antislavery: its ability to make rules and regulations in the territories (which everyone, until the Dred Scot decision, agreed gave Congress the power to regulate slavery there); and the commitment to equality in the preamble and the Fifth Amendment. Just as (if not more) important was the belief that the “spirit” of the Constitution was antislavery. Oakes shows that Lincoln and others acknowledged that the Constitution represented a compromise with slavery, but that the framers intended that slavery would die out. 

To bring the debate alive for students, I plan to have them put the framers of the Constitution on trial. This would be a culminating experience after the students would have already studied the Constitution and individual human experiences of enslavement, as well as resistance to it. While I approach my courses thematically, if I was teaching a conventional chronological course, this would serve as an ideal culminating experience for a study of US history through the Civil War.  I would adapt the techniques developed by my former colleague David Sherrin on using Mock Trials in the classroom, which he wrote about in the excellent book Judging for Themselves. Half the class would be assigned to prosecute the framers for being supportive of slavery, while the other half would have to defend them. This would come after a couple months of community building within the class, while establishing the norm that we are always trying to make the best possible arguments we can based on evidence. In the mock trial, students would assume the role of lawyers and witnesses, getting to call, question, and cross-examine relevant historical figures, including the framers themselves. Lawyers would be able to draw on the interpretations that Waldstreicher and Oakes presented to plan their arguments. To prepare their testimony and questions, students would examine primary sources from the Constitutional Convention, ratification debates, and subsequent United States history. 

This is a particularly great debate to help students understand the complexities of history, as there are both abolitionists and enslavers who found themselves arguing each side. As Oakes shows, even those far more enthusiastic about abolition than Lincoln, such as Frederick Douglass, thought the Constitution gave them a route to achieving their goals, but other abolitionists such as Willian Lloyd Garrison saw the Constitution as a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” On the other hand, there were virulent racist enslavers like John Calhoun who argued that the Constitution supported slavery, but the secessionists ultimately left because they did not think the Constitution would protect them against the rule of Lincoln and the Republican Party. The defense could call on supportive witnesses such as Douglass and potentially hostile witnesses like secessionists; the prosecution could call Garrison or Calhoun.

My goal for this unit will not be for the students to come to a certain conclusion, but rather to deeply engage with a complex and important topic. Understanding the Constitution is the foundation of any meaningful political engagement in the United States, whether one is privileged to be a citizen or not. Just as foundational is grappling with the relationship of slavery to this country’s founding, not to mention its continued legacy. By approaching the relationship between these two topics through a student-centered inquiry, students will be able to develop their interpretations of the past, while hopefully still recognizing the ambiguities of the issue. If they can do this, they’ll be well prepared to be far better citizens and community members than the models being presented to them by far too many today. 

*****

* The summaries of the two books are somewhat simplified to make them more accessible for high school students. I’ve also emphasized in them the points where there is more disagreement between the two.

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