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 along for well over two centuries, always expanding, not contracting, individual liberty under law.”
Indeed, Meacham stressed equality as the design of the Constitution, even if unachieved:
“This shift found its fullest expression in what became the most important sentence in the English language: ‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ I think that sentence has changed more lives around the world than any other. The eras we commemorate and want to emulate are the ones when we’ve more generously applied the implications of that sentence.”
Meacham has previously defined the Constitution’s purpose in other ways like resisting figures like Trump: “the Founders would have been stunned that it took this long to get a president like this. They designed this document for demagogues.”
That Meacham would have failed this question.
I reached out to the professors and the university about this story. The faculty did not respond. Vanderbilt sent the following opaque response that did not expressly deny the facts of this story:
“Consistent with our commitment to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, Vanderbilt has long fostered an environment in which diverse ideas and opinions can be expressed in our efforts to both model, and teach, the principles of civil discourse. The question was posed to stimulate discussion. Students were in fact not rewarded or penalized for their answers. It is unfortunate that the intent behind and purpose of the academic exercise have been misconstrued. We appreciate that our students, faculty and staff have historically engaged in respectful dialogue and we hope this continues.”
It is not clear what is meant by students not being “rewarded or penalized for their answers” when this student was marked off for answering “false.” For that student, there was not a “dialogue” but a decision that the student was wrong for believing that the design of the Constitution was developed to perpetuate slavery and white privilege. For some of us, that is like telling students that they are wrong in believing that the United Nations charter was designed to perpetuate colonialism or capitalism. That is the start more of a diatribe than a dialogue.