Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification
by David Waldstreicher
Publisher: Hill and Wang
David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification is that rare history book that offers an entirely new perspective on an exhaustively-documented period of American history. Waldstreicher, a professor of history at Temple University, is a reliably consistent writer in a crowded field; his previous books Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution and In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 both offered fresh insights into the colonial and post-revolutionary periods. His latest effort trumps both of these and is perhaps his finest work to date: thoroughly researched and forcefully argued, it is likely to become one of the key texts in any discussion of slavery’s role in the early republic.
Waldstreicher’s primary assertion is a controversial one: namely, that the Constitution as ratified in 1788 was a pro-slavery document that, with the concessions and compromises its creators made to increase the document’s chances of ratification by the state conventions, protected Southern slaveholding interests while also ensuring that slavery became irreversibly linked to the economic and political structure of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War. As uncomfortable as the book may make readers feel, Waldstreicher’s argument is meticulously supported, as he offers ample evidence of how the slavery question was discussed, debated and, in some cases, avoided throughout the closed-door meetings that produced the Constitution in 1787.
He performs a delicate balancing act, acknowledging the difficulties the framers faced in drafting a document that could be palatable to North and South alike, but also showing how it enabled a powerful centralized government to embed slavery as part of a broader attempt to define the nature of sovereignty, property and political representation in the young country.
Waldstreicher also adeptly shows how slavery played a role in political discourse in the pre-revolution years as well as in the frequently contentious public debate that preceded ratification, offering an extensive overview of the cultural and political attitudes to slavery in the revolutionary period in a little over 150 pages. The book’s final chapter is perhaps its best, as the author describes how objections over the Constitution fit within the broader tradition of political dissent in America. Though the framers eventually agreed to maintain a unified front in their support of the Constitution, especially as it was turned over to the states for ratification, Waldstreicher recounts how some leading politicians – some of whom can be seen as this country’s earliest abolitionists – maintained significant reservations about how parts of the document contradicted the country’s egalitarian ideals.
Slavery’s Constitution isn’t flawless, as it sometimes feels overly dense and at times excessively dry and professorial. Moreover, the author’s final statement that “…slavery did not itself cause the Civil War. Slavery’s Constitution did” is a loaded and overly-simplistic comment, with Waldstreicher ignoring later events that eventually led the country to war as well as reducing the complex question of the Civil War’s inevitability to a statement seemingly designed to provoke readers. Still, in a deliberate, responsible manner, Waldstreicher demonstrates how slavery remained one of the primary obstacles for the framers and, ultimately, how their decision to couch the subject in evasive language ensured slavery’s perpetuation.
by Eric Dennis