A conservative student organization has announced a quiz at Vanderbilt University asking students, "Was the constitution designed to maintain white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery?" A student who answered “wrong” was marked as wrong by the professor. The class is taught by Professors Josh Clinton, Eunji Kim, Jon Meacham and Dean John Geer, entitled PSCI 1150: US ELECTIONS 2020. Meacham is a regular on MSNBC and CNN and other networks, as well as the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
The question asked of the students is listed below: “Was the constitution designed to maintain white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery?
The faculty would only accept "true" as an answer.
The statement is wrong on several levels. There is no question that the Constitution did not end our deeply shameful history of slavery. But even with the Declaration of Independence, personalities like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson tried to tackle slavery. The decision was made to incorporate slave states to secure the declaration. The same political calculation was behind the infamous three-fifths compromise in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution.
Thus, the constitution has indeed perpetuated and protected the institution of slavery with its inherent white supremacy values. However, this was not the "design" of the constitution. The three-fifths compromise was a struggle for representation and taxation. The decision to leave slavery intact was based on the same political expediency. It was wrong. It is not an excuse to secure the independence of most citizens at the expense of leaving others enslaved. It was and remains the original sin of our nation. The design of our constitution should guarantee freedom to all men and women.
The actual design of the constitution, however, was Madison's vision of common and limited government. It is based on the philosophical work of characters from John Locke to Montesquieu. The claim that the draft should uphold slavery is revisionist and wrong.
In particular, the transcendent problem of slavery – and its constitutional maintenance – can be taught without rewriting history to fit that narrative. It is also worrying that these professors would punish students who take an alternate view. Even if that were arguably correct, at best it would be a question that many would disagree on. The question turns out to be increased groupthink or orthodoxy – a growing problem for many of us in higher education.
Indeed, Meacham previously stated that the constitution is designed to achieve democratic change and development:
"It's about being open to changing circumstances and data. If you cannot see that circumstances have changed and an opinion that already exists should be revised, you cannot be an heir to 1776. Woodrow Wilson said the constitution was supposed to be Newton, but was in fact Darwin. It was his genius to change and develop. If we cannot change and evolve as citizens and leaders, we will undo the American Revolution. The path to totalitarianism lies in indisputable certainty. "
Meacham has repeatedly stressed that design should institutionalize gradual democratic change. He agreed with the claim that "America's founders wrote a constitution that made change a slow and deliberate process." He said, "Yes they did, and it has served us pretty well over time – not perfect, God knows, but it has allowed us to mess up for two centuries and keep individual freedom under the law on and on to expand, not to contract. "
Indeed, Meacham emphasized equality as the draft constitution, even if it was not achieved:
“This shift found its fullest expression in the most important sentence of the English language: 'We take these truths for granted that all human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights by their Creator, that these include life, freedom and that Pursuit of happiness. “I think that phrase changed more lives around the world than anyone else. The eras we remember and wish to emulate are those in which we have more generously applied the implications of this sentence. "
Meacham had previously defined the purpose of the constitution in other ways, for example against personalities like Trump: “The founders would have been stunned that it took so long to get such a president. You designed this document for demagogues. "
This Meacham would not have answered that question.
I informed the professors and the university about this story. The faculty didn't answer. Vanderbilt sent the following opaque response, which did not specifically deny the facts of this story:
“Consistent with our commitment to the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom, Vanderbilt has long created an environment in which different ideas and opinions can be expressed as we seek to model and teach the principles of civil discourse . The question was asked to stimulate discussion. The students were neither rewarded nor punished for their answers. It is regrettable that the intent and purpose of the academic exercise have been misconstrued. We appreciate that our students, faculties, and staff have historically maintained a respectful dialogue, and we hope that it will continue to do so. "
It is not clear what is meant by the student not being “rewarded or punished for their answers” if that student is marked for answering “wrong”. For this student there was no "dialogue" but a decision that the student wrongly believed that the design of the constitution was developed to uphold slavery and white privilege. For some of us, it's like telling students that we wrongly believe that the United Nations Charter is designed to uphold colonialism or capitalism. This is more of a shame at the beginning than a dialogue.