Gilder Lehrman Lecture 2023

Since 2006, Chapin has had a fruitful partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, whose goal is to promote the understanding and teachings of U.S. history through professional development, student internships, online resources, and our cherished Gilder Lehrman Lecture.

Each year, Chapin welcomes renowned historians to these enlightening lectures, and this year, our sweet sixteenth, we were thrilled to have the distinguished Professor James Oakes of the CUNY Graduate Center speak to the community on January 24.

The evening began with a warm welcome from Head of School Suzanne Fogarty, followed by a brief overview of our partnership from Professor James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. The guest of honor was then introduced by Arielle Patrick ’07, a Chapin graduate and a member of Gilder Lehrman’s President’s Council.

Professor Oakes, who has twice won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, an annual award for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War era; spoke to parents, alums, professional community, friends and students – including all of Classes 7 and 11, who are deep in their study of U.S. History – about his most recent book, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution. 

“In the summer of 1854, the Massachusetts anti-slavery society sent out word of a large gathering to be held at Harmony Grove in Framingham, about 16 miles from Boston, on the fourth of July,” Oakes began, saying that it was during that gathering that William Lloyd Garrison cited the United States Constitution as a pro-slavery document, and, notably, lit the Fugitive Slave Act – and a copy of the Constitution – aflame.

Professor Oakes then spoke of Fredrick Douglass, another abolitionist who first agreed with Garrison before an apparent 180° about face some years later, declaring the Constitution as an anti-slavery document. “Like Douglass, I used to agree with Garrison,” Professor Oakes explained, noting that it wasn’t until he began in-depth research for a book about the relationship between Douglass and Abraham Lincoln that he realized neither of them agreed with Garrison. In fact, he said, “The more I looked into it, the clearer it became that hardly any anti-slavery folks agreed with Garrison.”

Equipped with this knowledge, Professor Oakes began to re-think the correlation between slavery and the Constitution. “I had to ask, what was this anti-slavery Constitution that nearly all opponents of slavery subscribed to?” he said.

He acknowledged that the rhetoric and language used in the U.S. Constitution was a prominent and burdensome influence on the very long road to the abolition of slavery. For example, he often referenced the “Federalist Consensus,” or the universally accepted principle that slavery was a state institution, and that the federal government had no right to interfere, or abolish it completely, in any state where it was legal. However, this consensus was not explicitly stated within the Constitution.

The problem, Professor Oakes noted, was that “both slavery’s defenders and critics were able to cite the text in the Constitution and claim that it supported their very different views.” He continued, “The Founders are often criticized for euphemistic evasions – the Constitution refers to slavery without using the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery.’”

Because of the Constitution’s ambiguity, Lincoln and the republican party governed in a tumultuous time, and thus underwent a long and “crooked path” to the thirteenth amendment. Professor Oakes explained, however, that Lincoln’s politics were always “planted firmly within the anti-slavery constitutional tradition. Various anti-slavery policies he endorsed over the years were, likewise, grounded in anti-slavery constitutionalism.” Lincoln long argued that Congress could constitutionally abolish slavery and recognized slaves as persons – never property.

We know that, ultimately, Congress did rightly nullify the Fugitive Slave Clause and abolish slavery in the United States. With that, Professor Oakes concluded that we are then left to ponder one of the “great paradoxes of American Constitutional History—that it took an anti-slavery Constitution to get an anti-slavery Constitution.”

After a brief Q&A with Professor Oakes, of whom our students asked insightful and thoughtful questions, Ms. Fogarty shared her immense thanks by saying, “His book is well worth the read – it’s evocative and provocative. Thank you for an informative and wonderful evening.”