Slavery’s malignant influence on American politics and constitutional law is illuminated in this probing historical study.
Johnson, a law professor, traces the tensions that would eventually explode into civil war back to America’s foundations: the corrupt pro-slavery “deal” struck in the Constitution—embodied in everything from the infamous three-fifths clause and fugitive slave provisions to the cumbersome Electoral College—to secure the support of the Southern slave states. The result, he contends, was a near-fatal “structural flaw” that put lawless oppression at the heart of a blueprint for democratic governance and individual rights. Johnson elaborates a nuanced, far-reaching analysis of the effects of this contradiction through the 19th century. He explores the growing sectional divide as slavery became ever more the backbone of the Southern economy and social order, and ever more inimical to Northern abolitionists; the Congressional compromises that papered over the widening fissure; the religious and racial ideologies deployed by slavery’s defenders; the constitutional crises provoked by territorial expansion, and the tortured states’ rights theories Southerners used to justify slavery’s spread, and later outright secession; and the court cases in which judges tried to square the circle of buttressing slavery in the land of the free. The pivotal figure of Abraham Lincoln anchors Johnson’s analysis. In the author’s shrewd portrait, Lincoln is bedeviled by the conundrums intrinsic to American slavery—he abhorred it, but felt that the Constitution protected it in the existing slave states—but also possesses a keen lawyer’s mind capable of threading a way through the legalistic thickets surrounding the institution. (The author gives a fascinating exegesis of the subtle strategies Lincoln used to trip up Stephen A. Douglas in their debates.) Johnson grounds his arguments in close readings of original documents, from the Federalist Papers to the Dred Scott decision, supplemented by his incisive commentary and nuanced discussion of later historiographical debates. Scholars and lay readers alike can enjoy this thoroughly researched, fluently written volume.
A lucid, thought-provoking account of slavery’s dark roots and vexed progress.