WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke at Liberty University on Monday, he offered his audience a thought not usually advanced in conservative Christian circles: that the United States was, "in many ways," created "on racist principles."
But pushback has come from an entirely different direction: A historian close to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton wrote in The New York Times that Sanders' argument about the nation's founding "threatens to poison the current presidential campaign."
The historian is Sean Wilentz, a professor at Princeton. In his Wednesday op-ed, he noted that the Civil War began over a disagreement over whether the Constitution recognized enslaved people as property under national law. While Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina said the document was pro-slavery, Northern Republicans and abolitionists said it wasn't.
"The myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America's racist past," Wilentz wrote. "The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln's and Douglass's view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun's."
Wilentz was an outspoken advocate for Clinton during her 2008 Democratic presidential bid and has remained in close contact with her since, as HuffPost's Ryan Grim reported in May. Grim wrote that Wilentz "has been helping Clinton understand where and how her potential administration, and that of her husband Bill Clinton, fit into the arc of progressive history over the last half-century or more." Wilentz's worldview is that partisanship is important to the political process and that it is naive to call for post-partisan politics.
One theme that has emerged from those close to the Clinton campaign is that Sanders is too extreme, or too liberal, to win in a general election. As a Clinton booster, Wilentz's op-ed furthers that argument, by calling the suggestion that the Constitution was inherently racist "one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history."
Wilentz wrote that the Constitution prevented slavery from becoming a national institution and that any concessions to the South, like the three-fifths or fugitive slave clauses, were "consolation prizes."
"Far from a proslavery compact of 'racist principles,' the Constitution was based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of property in humans," Wilentz concluded. "Without that antislavery outcome in 1787, slavery would not have reached 'ultimate extinction' in 1865."
Neither Wilentz nor Sanders' campaign responded to requests for comment about the opinion piece. Since his speech at Liberty, Sanders has not clarified whether he was specifically referring to the text of the Constitution or to the society in which the document was written and debated.