About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding"

McGowan Theater, National Archives Building, Washington, DC
September 11, 2018

Good afternoon. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and I’m pleased to welcome you to the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. Whether you are here in the theater or joining us through YouTube, I’m glad you could be with us.

Before we hear from Sean Wilentz about his new book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding, I’d like to let you know about two other programs coming up within the next week.

On Friday, September 14, in collaboration with the Assembly for Democracy in Vietnam, we will host a day-long symposium called “The Vietnam War Revisited,” which will explore the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective.

Then next Tuesday, September 18, at noon, Kyle Longley, the director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, will be here to talk about his latest book, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval.

Check our website, Archives.gov, to learn about all our programs, or sign up at the table outside the theater to get email updates.

Another way to get more involved with the National Archives is to become a member of the National Archives Foundation. The Foundation supports the work of the agency, especially its education and outreach programs. Learn more about their work on their website—archivesfoundation.org—and join online.

The word “slavery” doesn’t appear in the United States Constitution passed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Its first and only appearance is in the article that abolished the institution—the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865. The text written by the delegates in 1787 refers to “other Persons,” “such Persons,” or a “Person held to Service or Labour.” The question of slavery, however, loomed large over the convention.

In No Property in Man, Sean Wilentz reexamines the debate over slavery and shines a light on the paradox of slavery and freedom written into the Constitution. The original, signed Constitution is one of the three prized founding documents on permanent display upstairs in the Rotunda. Even though copies of the text are readily available in print and online, more than a million visitors a year line up to see the original in person.

As we gaze at the enshrined parchment, we may need a reminder now and then that the road to creating this revered foundational document was not an easy one. Professor Wilentz shows us the arguments and compromises of the Constitutional Convention and the roots of the struggle over slavery through the end of the Civil War.

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. Many of his works have won national prizes. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln received the prestigious Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Professor Wilentz’s latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding, is based on his Nathan I. Huggins lectures at Harvard in 2015. He is currently at work on The Triumph of American Antislavery, a companion volume to The Rise of American Democracy. He has also written extensively on American popular music. His Bob Dylan in America was a New York Times Bestseller, and 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story was nominated for a Grammy and won other national awards.

He lectures frequently and has written some 300 articles, reviews, and op-ed pieces for national and international publications. He also has also appeared on numerous television and radio programs, including The Colbert Report, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sean Wilentz.