ANALYSIS: Randi Weingarten Fails Civics

Fact-Checking Basic U.S. History
Randi Weingarten and Tweet
Photo: Keith Mellnick/Wikimedia Commons/Twitter
SHARE:

On September 22, Ron Filipkowski, an attorney and Democratic operative, tweeted a video of Florida governor Ron DeSantis in which DeSantis argued that “it was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery.” DeSantis also asserted that “no one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights.”

DeSantis’ argument is somewhat true, but warrants nuance. Since their arrival to the continent, the people who would eventually become Americans had made arguments against slavery, but abolitionism did not emerge as a legitimate political movement until the American Revolution was nigh. 

Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (and a former AP U.S. Government teacher), decided she had something else to add. 

“The American Revolution was about leaving Britain,” Mrs. Weingarten tweeted. “If America’s founders questioned slavery there would not have been the heinous “3/5 compromise “ in the US Constitution, which was drafted and enacted AFTER the American Revolution.” She concluded by declaring that “this is basic history.”

However, Mrs. Weingarten’s core claim — that the 3/5ths Compromise is evidence that the founding fathers did not question slavery — is demonstrably false. Even going beyond Thomas Jefferson’s well-known hypocrisy on slavery, numerous founding fathers vocally fought against slavery both during the Constitutional Convention and beyond. 

John Adams, for example, was a vocal and consistent opponent of slavery. His position is best encapsulated by an 1819 letter to William Tudor, Jr., in which he wrote that “Slavery is an evil of Colossal magnitude. I am therefore utterly averse to the admission of Slavery into the Missouri Territory, and heartily wish that every Constitutional measure may be adopted for the preservation of it.” He also never owned a slave, even though he certainly could have afforded to. 

One might respond that Adams was not at the Constitutional Convention (he was in Britain at the time), but his ideas, as expressed in his Thoughts on Government, were broadly influential. Even if one does not accept Adams as an example of an abolitionist founding father, there were others who attended the Convention. 

During the debate surrounding the 3/5ths Compromise, James Madison and Roger Sherman warned against “[admitting] in the Constitution that there could be property in men,” but Luther Martin, the attorney general of Maryland, took an even stronger stance. Martin owned six slaves of his own, but wholeheartedly supported gradual abolition. 

Martin railed against his fellow delegates, claiming “they anxiously sought to avoid the admission of expressions which might be odious to the ears of Americans [slavery], though they were willing to admit into their system those things which the expression signified.” Slavery, to Martin, “was incosistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency to destroy those principles on which it is supported, and it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression.” He would vote against the compromise. 

Ergo, the truth is not that the 3/5ths Compromise was the result of a moral and ideological indifference to slavery. The truth, as historian Patrick Rael wrote, was that “Southern delegates had successfully ransomed the union in exchange for constitutional protections of slavery.” The North chose the union over their commitment to liberal ideas and human equality, for better or for worse. 

But in any case, the founders did question slavery, and they did so often. Some, like Thomas Paine, were quiet but active participants in early abolitionist movements. However, their commitment to the union was greater than their commitment to liberal ideas. The 3/5ths Compromise was viewed as a necessary evil — not as a positive endorsement of slavery. As such, Mrs. Weingarten’s argument is simply false.

Garion Frankel
Garion Frankel is a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management. He is a Young Voices contributor, and Chalkboard Review’s breaking news reporter.

Don't Miss Out!

Subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the latest education commentary and news everyone ought to know about.