Georgetown Center for the Constitution Awards Cooley Book Prize to Princeton’s Sean Wilentz

July 31, 2020

WASHINGTON – The Georgetown Center for the Constitution announced it will award its fourth annual Thomas Cooley Book Prize of $50,000 to Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton University for his book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018).

The Center’s faculty director, Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett, explained the decision:

Sean Wilentz’s timely book strikes at the now-conventional wisdom that the U.S. Constitution endorsed slavery or “property in man.” Wilentz describes how the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 propelled a powerful antislavery movement. Wilentz meticulously shows that antislavery forces at the Constitutional Convention successfully resisted slaveholders’ persistent efforts to include language that would expressly legitimate the concept of “property in man.”

He then traces how the wording of the Declaration and the Constitution were effectively used by an increasingly assertive antislavery movement in the 19th Century. This agitation culminated in the formation of the antislavery Republican Party with a platform consciously designed to implement the Declaration’s principles while remaining faithful to the Constitution’s text. The victory of the Republican platform at the polls in 1860 immediately triggered Southern secession and the civil war that culminated in the formal amendment that ended slavery in the United States. This is a narrative that all Americans today need to know.

Following the Cooley Book Prize ceremony, to be held at Georgetown Law in the Spring of 2021, the Honorable Judge Neomi Rao of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will deliver the annual Thomas Cooley Judicial Lecture. The next day the Cooley Book Prize & Judicial Lecture, a distinguished group of political scientists, historians, and legal scholars will gather for the Thomas Cooley Faculty Seminar to discuss Wilentz’s book.

Previous Cooley Prize winners include: Professor Keith Whittington (Princeton) for his book, Repugnant Laws: Judicial Review of Acts of Congress from the Founding to the Present (University Press of Kansas, 2019); Professor Richard H. Fallon, Jr. (Harvard Law School) for his book, Law and Legitimacy in the Supreme Court (Harvard University Press, 2018), and Professors Gary Lawson (Boston University School of Law) and Guy Seidman (IDC Herzliya—Radzyner School of Law) for their book, A Great Power of Attorney: Understanding the Fiduciary Constitution (Kansas University Press, 2017).

The Thomas M. Cooley Book Prize, Symposium & Judicial Lecture honors the renowned legal scholar and jurist Thomas McIntyre Cooley, a longstanding chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and a professor and dean at the University of Michigan Law School. He authored several highly influential books, including A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations Which Rest Upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union.