The Bancroft Prize–winning historian pieces together how the Constitution set the stage for Civil War.
The Constitution, notes Wilentz (American History/Princeton Univ.; The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics, 2017), allowed slavery without authorizing it. The framers excluded any mention of “property in men,” slavery’s bedrock principle. That exclusion made slavery a creation of individual states, not a national institution. Since the framers conducted their business secretly, opposite sides could create contrary ipressions from the same phrasing, interpreting the language to suit their purpose. Seeing control as an invasion of property rights, Southern leaders fought against ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the assessment of import taxes, and national abolition. In South Carolina, Charles Pinkney fought for the rights of slaveholders. To overcome fear of a Northern majority, his answer was to have representation based on wealth. Failing that, he proposed a three-fifths rule, whereby slaves were counted as 3/5 of a man. What the Constitution finally passed was a 20-year ban on abolition—a period during which South Carolina and Georgia imported more African slaves than in any other like period—the 3/5 clause, and the fugitive slave clause, protecting a master’s right to reclaim escaped slaves. Those opposed to slavery argued that man’s right to personal liberty should override any property law, and slavery robbed slaves of their right to property in their own persons. When it came to ratifying the Constitution, it wasn’t slavery but rather the division of powers between the state and federal governments that caused many to pause. This astute study of the attempts to create a nation including all the Colonies shows how difficult a task they had. While many condemned slavery, they also knew it could only be abolished gradually. Almost by necessity, Wilentz’s account is occasionally repetitive in order to show how nuanced each argument became as compromises were reached.
The narrative may be difficult going for general readers, but it’s undeniably enlightening and well worth the effort.