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 (History/Temple Univ.; Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution, 2004, etc.) 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.