Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution
Howard Zinn should know better. When the author of A People’s History of the United States says that Lawrence Goldstone’s new book, Dark Bargain, “puts slavery near the heart of the making of the Constitution,” you hope that this isn’t the reason Zinn allowed his name to be plastered across the book’s back cover, as several scholars have emphasized the role of slavery in the creation of our Constitution, and with better results.
This doesn’t mean that Dark Bargain is without merit: Any effort to deconstruct the myth of the Founding Fathers as simply freedom-loving men with halos affixed to their scalps is worthy of some plaudits. Goldstone advances his unoriginal thesis, concluding that the Constitution was “drafted by highly pragmatic men who were pursuing limited and self-interested goals,” and that “acting in the interest of their social system, slaveholders had helped preserve the chance of union.” That such conclusions still raise the ire of many Americans suggests that this book is necessary, no matter its mediocrity.
Goldstone begins Dark Bargain with a brief discussion on the scholarly ineptness of Constitutional historians. “Throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, one prominent historian after another examined the record and insisted that the economics of slavery was a minor factor in Philadelphia,” Goldstone writes. He goes on to note that “practical realities are often substantially ignored,” and that Constitutional scholarship has devolved into a study of political philosophies and the elevation of certain individuals—Madison, Hamilton, Franklin—to godlike status. Instead, Goldstone suggests a focus on the practical politics involved, with a magnifying glass held to those who wielded “real power,” four of whom are profiled: Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman, John Rutledge, and George Mason. But Goldstone fails to mention those who subscribe to the historical analysis that he advocates, such as noted black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (whom is cited in the bibliography) or contemporary legal scholar Akil Reed Amar.
What follows is a familiar, derivative narrative: Goldstone surveys a series of negotiations made by the constitutional conventions’ delegates, such as the Connecticut Compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the process of electing the U.S president and determining what the position should entail. Goldstone’s central argument that the conventions’ delegates argued in the best interests of their states and regions is nothing new, but it is argued in an accessible manner. Not that this matters much, as anyone who would purchase this book is likely to be a well-read individual, and such an individual deserves more probing, innovative historical scholarship. More importantly, the slaves themselves deserve more.