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A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic
A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic
George William Van Cleve
University Of Chicago Press, 2010
408 pp., $48.00

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Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification
Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification
David Waldstreicher
Hill and Wang, 2009
208 pp., $25.00

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Allen C. Guelzo


"No Union with Slaveholders!"

Slavery and the Constitution.

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Finkelman lays the groundwork for both Waldstreicher and Van Cleve (Finkelman is cited more often in A Slaveholders' Union than any other modern historian), who in turn raise Finkelman's claims for a pro-slavery Constitution to yet higher degrees. Waldstreicher is the shorter of the two, and more in the nature of a general summation of the neo-Garrisonian viewpoint. Like Finkelman, Waldstreicher believes that the Founders created a national "compact" which consciously sustained slavery (six out of the Constitution's 84 clauses, he notes, bear on aspects of slavery), and allowed slavery's interests to prevail in the federal Congress (since the house most responsible for fiscal matters was the place where the Three-fifths Clause brought its greatest weight to bear). But more than Finkelman, Waldstreicher does not believe that this was merely the result of paradox or political log-rolling in the Constitutional Convention. The Revolution itself was caused by the panic slaveholders felt over the implications of the 1772 Somerset decision in the Court of King's Bench, which rendered slavery a legal impossibility in England. By denying slavery legal standing anywhere in the empire outside the colonies, Somerset alarmed American slaveholders, who were thus rendered instant converts to a revolution against imperial authority. In turn, the Constitution went out of its way to reassure American slaveholders, since the Constitution actually made it harder to get rid of slavery than before.

Van Cleve is less polemical, but longer and more methodical than Waldstreicher. In his reading, both the Revolution and the Constitution acted to strengthen slavery, either by sanctioning the colonial status quo on slave labor or by providing new protections for its expansion. Like Waldstreicher, Van Cleve believes that Somerset profoundly frightened American slaveholders—20 percent of all American wealth, Van Cleve adds, was invested in slaves—and the Constitutional Convention went out of its way to secure slavery's place in American life. Not only did the Three-fifths clause and the fugitive rendition provisions side entirely with pro-slavery forces, but the state delegations to the convention were given no instructions to seek an end to slavery, and none of the ratification debates (including the Federalist Papers) made slavery an issue. Southerners who took up ratification as their cause in the Southern ratifying conventions actually campaigned for ratification precisely "because the Constitution did not authorize the federal government to take action against it." Nor does Van Cleve find it difficult to find Southerners quite candid in their belief that "without security for their slave property … the union never would have been completed." In that light, Chief Justice Taney's dictum that the Constitution explicitly recognized slaves as property was merely the final corroboration of the Constitution's lethal pro-slavery tilt.

Yet, in all of these assertions, from Douglass to Waldstreicher and Van Cleve, there creeps in an air of special pleading, an Eyore-ish determination to read the Constitutional glass as perpetually half-full, if not empty. Van Cleve, for instance, always takes the slaveholders' word as the statement of the Constitution's sober fact, while anti-slavery observers are dismissed as wrong when they see slavery being diminished by the Constitution. And the notion that the Constitution's provisions for the termination of the slave trade can be read as "protecting the interests of slave traders and those of states that wanted to import slaves" must crinkle the brow of any disinterested reader. Above all, this pleading has to engender the puzzled question of how a regime based on such a pro-slavery Constitution could, within the span of a single lifetime, bring to the east front of the Capitol a president who could deny that the Constitution gave slavery any sanction at all.

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