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Slavery's Constitution

From Revolution to Ratification

David Waldstreicher

Hill and Wang

Slavery's Constitution Download image

ISBN10: 0809016508
ISBN13: 9780809016501

Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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Taking on decades of received wisdom, David Waldstreicher has written the first book to recognize slavery's place at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. Famously, the Constitution never mentions slavery. And yet, of its eighty-four clauses, six were directly concerned with slaves and the interests of their owners. Five other clauses had implications for slavery that were considered and debated by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the citizens of the states during ratification. This "peculiar institution" was not a moral blind spot for America's otherwise enlightened framers, nor was it the expression of a mere economic interest. Slavery was as important to the making of the Constitution as the Constitution was to the survival of slavery.

By tracing slavery from before the revolution, through the Constitution's framing, and into the public debate that followed, Waldstreicher rigorously shows that slavery was not only actively discussed behind the closed and locked doors of the Constitutional Convention, but that it was also deftly woven into the Constitution itself. For one thing, slavery was central to the American economy, and since the document set the stage for a national economy, the Constitution could not avoid having implications for slavery. Even more, since the government defined sovereignty over individuals, as well as property in them, discussion of sovereignty led directly to debate over slavery's place in the new republic.

Finding meaning in silences that have long been ignored, Slavery's Constitution is a pointed and provocative contribution to the conversation about the origins, impact, and meaning of our nation's founding document.


Praise for Slavery's Constitution

"Was the American Constitution as originally ratified a proslavery document? In this unflinching, deeply intelligent, and persuasive work, David Waldstreicher answers yes. Sure to spark interest and debate, Slavery's Constitution is an immensely engaging and valuable contribution to the literature on the founding of the American nation."—Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of law at New York Law School and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History

"Succinct and shrewd, David Waldstreicher's Slavery's Constitution enables us to understand a central element of American political practice that the founders sought to obscure."—Linda K. Kerber, professor of history at the University of Iowa and author of Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America

"David Waldstreicher's intriguing new book brilliantly shows the founding fathers' republican constitution to be, in important part, central to their many evasions of slavery's antirepublican nature."—William W. Freehling, author of The South Vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War

"With as light a touch as its hard truths permit, Slavery's Constitution explains the deep, complex, and pervasive entanglement that ultimately doomed the United States to civil war."—Robin L. Einhorn, professor of history, University of California Berkeley

"David Waldstreicher's brilliant little book sets the terms of debate for all further discussion of slavery and the Constitution."—James Oakes, professor of history, City University of New York Graduate Center

"Waldstreicher discusses how disagreements over slavery shaped debates over the content of the document and about the merits of ratification . . . An important contribution by reminding readers of the key events of an important time in American history."—Claude R. Marx, The Boston Globe

"Slavery is never mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but the compromises hammered out over the question are integral to the document. In a succinct but carefully reasoned study, Temple University history professor David Waldstreicher shows how slave state delegates to the Constitutional Convention leveraged the issue to their advantage, and how ardent federalists from the North, many of them opposed to slavery, came to a consensus of silence over the Constitution's role in countenancing slavery. Waldstreicher concludes that the end of slavery wasn't determined by the Constitution, but by Americans who believed in higher laws than the political arrangement governing the new republic."—David Luhrssen, The Shepherd Express (Milwaukee)

"After they won the revolution, how did the framers of our government deal with slavery without becoming hypocrites? They didn't—and instead wove slavery into their Constitution to ensure its perpetuation, historian David Waldstreicher persuasively argues in his slender, provocative book."—Cameron McWhirter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A historian finds the seeds of an inevitable civil war embedded in the 'contradictions, ambiguities, and silences' about slavery in the Constitution. Fully aware of the embarrassing disconnect between the American Revolution's rhetoric and the facts on the ground, the colonists adopted a politics of slavery that sought to normalize or dissolve the institution into euphemisms like 'species of property.' By the 1780s, with America newly independent, enlightened minds foresaw the end of slavery, but that movement collided with a simultaneous push for a stronger federal government. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention issues of state sovereignty and representation were inextricably bound 'with the question of slaves as taxable wealth and as persons in, but seemingly not of, the polity.' Waldstreicher efficiently demonstrates how the Framers, without mentioning slavery, crafted a document which, through several interlocking provisions, sought to preserve the institution while strengthening the proposed national government. Rejecting the lazy notion that the Framers either ignored or 'left unfinished' the business of slavery, Waldstreicher reveals how they were actually obsessed with it, turning disagreements about it into a structure 'to manage doubts and conflicts about nationhood as well as slavery itself.' In the subsequent ratification debate, which the author rightly terms 'the beginnings of American national politics,' the Constitution's simultaneous precision and vagueness permitted advocates to defend it as proslavery in some states, antislavery in others. Anti-federalists knew the Constitution would impair the people's ability, locally or nationally, to affect slavery, and they saw in its ambiguities a perfect illustration of its threat to state sovereignty. Nevertheless, the people approved the Convention's handiwork, confirming a pattern of dealmaking over slavery that held until the beginning of the Civil War. A closely argued critique that exposes the deadly implications of the Constitution's careful euphemisms about slavery."—Kirkus Reviews

"How is it and what does it mean that the U.S. Constitution of 1787 refused to mention the words slave or slavery, asks Waldstreicher. He seeks to answer in three interpretive essays tracing the American slavery debate from the 1740s through 1788. He argues that a realistic understanding of the era and issues properly situates slavery within broad, culturally determined constitutional politics. Governance in early America cast slavery simply as a control category that put and kept blacks in what most ruling whites saw as blacks' proper place as dependents. There they sat akin to most others in an America struggling to work through the possibilities and problems of making republican ideals of constitutional equality real. Far from being silent on slaves and slavery in the Constitution, Waldstreicher explains, the Founding Fathers spoke deeply, opting for a political pragmatism that tried to shed moral responsibility but ultimately failed both to republicanize and to depoliticize slavery. Highly readable and provocative in conception, this work may appeal especially to general readers and U.S. history students."—Thomas J. Davis, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

David Waldstreicher

David Waldstreicher is a professor of history at Temple University and is the author of Runaway America (H&W, 2004) and In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes.

David Waldstreicher