Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Lawrence Goldstone responds to Gordon Wood

In this post, Lawrence Goldstone, author of Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution, responds to Gordon Wood's review of his book in the New York Review of Books, noted here on the Legal History Blog. To follow this conversation, readers will want to see the full review. It is only available on-line for those with a subscription, but one-time access can be purchased. And you can find it in your library. Here's Goldstone:
I have the greatest respect for Gordon S. Wood. He has provided incisive, encyclopedic understanding of the Founding Period for decades. I can only hope, however, that he takes more care reading historical documents than he did with my book.

In his analysis of Dark Bargain, Dr. Wood selectively excised minor arguments and made them major, while completely avoiding the central themes. In making my case for John Rutledge, for example, I focused on his role as chairman of the Committee of Detail, a group of five delegates chosen at the end of July to draft a prototype constitution. As anyone in business or government who has ever been involved in such a process will attest, the creation of a working document—as opposed to Madison’s Virginia Plan, which was an unsolicited submission—is a position of enormous influence and power. That Rutledge, perhaps the most ferociously unapologetic defender of slavery in Philadelphia, was chosen by his fellows to chair the committee, I found telling. What’s more, Madison, who was present and would have leapt to serve, was specifically excluded. The delegates needed a Virginian and chose the malleable Edmund Randolph instead. Academics never discuss Madison’s exclusion, perhaps because it would undercut the notion that he was the driving force throughout the Convention.

Not only does Dr. Wood fail to address Madison’s absence from the committee, he avoids any mention of the Committee of Detail at all in his review. Curiously, in a new book, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (written two years after mine) David O. Stewart, a Constitutional lawyer, also grants Rutledge and the Committee of Detail a pivotal role—and Madison a diminished one. Mr. Stewart has only been praised for bringing this heretofore unexplored aspect of the Convention’s dynamics to light.

In another instance, Dr. Wood, to demonstrate my naiveté and lack of understanding, cites a famous quote by Madison, which asserts that everyone knew that the most significant rift was not between large and small states, but between slave states and free. Dr. Wood goes on to explain that Madison was merely throwing out a red herring to distract the delegates from the large/small division. But nowhere in the volume upon volume of his writings and speeches did Madison indicate he was bluffing on that afternoon in July. Quite the contrary. I, therefore, took Madison at his word—Dr. Wood claimed to read his mind. Dr. Wood’s credentials are without peer but I was unaware that they confer upon him a license to clairvoyance.

Dr. Wood states that “we have to try to rid ourselves of our knowledge of what happened in the succeeding decades.” I could not agree more. Another pivotal theme of Dark Bargain was the expectation, never realized, of population trending south and west, thereby providing southern states with a future majority in both houses of Congress. Pro-slavery delegates were thus very much playing for time in Philadelphia, with definite consequences that I discussed at length. The debate as to whether to initiate a national census, for example, was conducted along sectional lines. Once again, no mention in the review.

Finally, I thought that the distinction between the tobacco growing Upper South and rice intensive Lower South caused those sections to come down on different sides of the slave trade—a very distinct question from the slave system—and provided a fulcrum to savvy Northern delegates to use as one side of a compromise on commerce questions. No discussion from Dr. Wood.

That Dr. Wood would be so transparently selective, spend so much time and energy avoiding the crux of the argument—particularly by someone he took pains to dismiss as “the author (with his wife Nancy) of several works of history on subjects other than early America”—leads me to believe that it is the source and not the treatment that disturbs him the most.

Lawrence Goldstone
Westport, CT