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Contesting Slavery

Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation

John Craig Hammond
Matthew Mason
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Contesting Slavery
    Book Description:

    Recent scholarship on slavery and politics between 1776 and 1840 has wholly revised historians' understanding of the problem of slavery in American politics.Contesting Slaverybuilds on the best of that literature to reexamine the politics of slavery in revolutionary America and the early republic.

    The original essays collected here analyze the Revolutionary era and the early republic on their own terms to produce fresh insights into the politics of slavery before 1840. The collection forces historians to rethink the multiple meanings of slavery and antislavery to a broad array of Americans, from free and enslaved African Americans to proslavery ideologues, from northern farmers to northern female reformers, from minor party functionaries to political luminaries such as Henry Clay.

    The essays also delineate the multiple ways slavery sustained conflict and consensus in local, regional, and national politics. In the end,Contesting Slaveryboth establishes the abiding presence of slavery and sectionalism in American political life and challenges historians' long-standing assumptions about the place, meaning, and significance of slavery in American politics between the Revolutionary and antebellum eras.

    Contributors: Rachel Hope Cleves, University of Victoria * David F. Ericson, George Mason University * John Craig Hammond, Penn State University, New Kensington * Matthew Mason, Brigham Young University * Richard Newman, Rochester Institute of Technology * James Oakes, CUNY Graduate Center * Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia * Robert G. Parkinson, Shepherd University * Donald J. Ratcliffe, University of Oxford * Padraig Riley, Dalhousie University * Edward B. Rugemer, Yale University * Brian Schoen, Ohio University * Andrew Shankman, Rutgers University, Camden * George William Van Cleve, University of Virginia * Eva Sheppard Wolf, San Francisco State University

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3117-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xix)
    Peter S. Onuf

    Slavery has shaped our national narrative. It has been the dark counterpoint to the progress of democracy, a stark reminder that the American Revolution’s promise would long remain unfulfilled for many Americans. The juxtaposition between American slavery and American freedom has led recent generations of historians to subject the founding generation to relentless and penetrating criticism. Echoing antebellum opponents of slavery, modern critics turn the revolutionaries’ exalted professions—“All men are created equal”—against their sordid, self-interested practices. Revisionists thus simultaneously reject the Founders and identify with them, positioning themselves at the endpoint of the history the Founders envisioned.


  5. Introduction Slavery, Sectionalism, and Politics in the Early American Republic
    (pp. 1-8)
    John Craig Hammond and Matthew Mason

    The great thirty-year drama that stretched from 1831 to 1861 has dominated historians’ accounts of the politics of slavery and sectionalism in the United States. Historians generally agree that the parallel emergence of immediate abolitionism and Deep South extremism, punctuated by Nat Turner’s rebellion, initiated the great sectional conflicts that would overtake American politics after David Wilmot introduced his famous Proviso in 1846. From 1846 onward, state and national politics roiled from one sectional crisis to another, eventuating in disunion and civil war. By comparison, the politics of slavery and sectionalism in the early republic—from the American Revolution through...

  6. Part I Slavery and Ideology, Action and Inaction

    • Necessary but Not Sufficient: Revolutionary Ideology and Antislavery Action in the Early Republic
      (pp. 11-31)
      Matthew Mason

      For decades, scholars have debated what effect the ideology of the American Revolution had on slavery. For some, the Revolutionary ideals of universal liberty and equality presented a fundamental and straightforward challenge to slavery. Bernard Bailyn, for instance, has posited that the ideology of the Revolution touched off a “contagion of liberty” that struck down entrenched institutions like slavery, as previously oblivious white revolutionaries became aware of the contradictions between their yelps for liberty and the continued bondage of African Americans. Their unease touched off a “movement of thought that was rapid, irreversible, and irresistible.”¹ The best evidence of these...

    • Early Free-Labor Thought and the Contest over Slavery in the Early Republic
      (pp. 32-48)
      Eva Sheppard Wolf

      A generation before Adam Smith, inWealth of Nations,criticized slavery as less efficient than free labor, Benjamin Franklin advanced a similar argument. In his 1751 essay, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind . . . ,” Franklin claimed that a series of reasoned calculations proved that free labor was economically superior to slave labor. Since he advanced his argument in more of a rhetorical than mathematical way, describing rather than demonstrating the necessary calculations, Franklin seems to have assumed that his readers had arrived with him at the understanding that slaves would “Neglect” their “Business” more than free workers...

    • “Manifest Signs of Passion”: The First Federal Congress, Antislavery, and Legacies of the Revolutionary War
      (pp. 49-68)
      Robert G. Parkinson

      In February 1790, the first United States Congress took up the task of giving life to one of its constitutionally enumerated powers: to establish a uniform rule of naturalization. Delegates debated several provisions of the Naturalization Bill, including the question of how long aliens would be required to live in America before becoming eligible for citizenship. One issue they apparently did not dispute, though, was who could apply. Together, the first American senators and representatives deemed that any alien who was “a free white person” would be suitable for full citizenship in the United States.¹

      All discussion having ended, the...

    • “Good Communications Corrects Bad Manners”: The Banneker-Jefferson Dialogue and the Project of White Uplift
      (pp. 69-93)
      Richard Newman

      Although it marked the only semi-official contact between a federal governing official and a black reformer in the early national period, the exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker in 1791 still flies under the scholarly radar. Perusing recent titles on the ever expanding shelf of Jefferson studies, for instance, reveals little extended discussion of Banneker—a rather strange thing considering the explosion of literature on black abolitionism and emancipation in Jefferson’s and Banneker’s world.¹ For many scholars, the Hemings affair takes center stage in the saga of Jeffersonian race relations.² Here, the inner Jefferson’s struggle with racial...

    • Caribbean Slave Revolts and the Origins of the Gag Rule: A Contest between Abolitionism and Democracy, 1797–1835
      (pp. 94-114)
      Edward B. Rugemer

      On December 18, 1835, when Congressman William Jackson of Massachusetts presented a petition from his constituents for the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., James Henry Hammond of South Carolina countered with a unique response. He moved that the petition “be not received.” House Speaker James Polk replied that such a motion had never been voiced, and off and on for several weeks the House discussed the procedural issues at stake.¹ Hammond did not participate in most of this debate, but on February 1, when Congressman Caleb Cushing (again of Massachusetts) presented another petition for the abolition of slavery in...

  7. Part II The State and Slavery

    • Founding a Slaveholders’ Union, 1770–1797
      (pp. 117-137)
      George William Van Cleve

      During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Abraham Lincoln argued that “our fathers” had created a Union whose Constitution and founding principles envisioned that slavery would be “placed . . . in the course of ultimate extinction” when possible. Stephen Douglas disagreed vehemently, and their epic contest over the issue resounded throughout the nation.¹ In our time, historians continue to debate both the validity of Lincoln’s historical claim and slavery’s implications for our understanding of the Revolution and early national history.² This essay argues that Lincoln’s historical account of “the Founders’ ” intent was flawed. Some of them may well have...

    • “Uncontrollable Necessity”: The Local Politics, Geopolitics, and Sectional Politics of Slavery Expansion
      (pp. 138-160)
      John Craig Hammond

      In one of the most oft-repeated statements from the early republic, Thomas Jefferson likened the Missouri Controversy to an unexpected “firebell in the night.” Jefferson knew better. In November 1818, New Yorker James Tallmadge tried to block the admission of Illinois into statehood because slavery was “not sufficiently prohibited” in its constitution. Six months earlier, New Hampshire Republican Arthur Livermore had proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit slavery “in any State hereafter admitted to the Union.” Over the previous twenty years, Northern Republicans had repeatedly fought to limit slavery’s growth in the Southwest and to keep it out of...

    • Positive Goods and Necessary Evils: Commerce, Security, and Slavery in the Lower South, 1787–1837
      (pp. 161-182)
      Brian Schoen

      Situating the region most committed to slavery, the Lower South, within the politics and history of the early United States remains a difficult task. Much of the literature makes the region the exception to most rules. As the rest of America transformed the Revolutionary spirit into a liberal-capitalist nation, Georgians, and particularly South Carolinians, supposedly took another path, drifting and eventually sprinting into a counterrevolutionary, even pre-modern, mindset. In short, the rest of the world passed the Lower South by, leaving it as a marginalized region on the fringes of the allegedly greater story of American political and economic development.¹...

    • Slave Smugglers, Slave Catchers, and Slave Rebels: Slavery and American State Development, 1787–1842
      (pp. 183-204)
      David F. Ericson

      The 1860 Democratic Convention fractured over the demand of the Southern Democrats for a federally imposed territorial slave code. The Northern Democrats refused to accede to this demand, which they saw as an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government on a traditional state and local function. Their principle was their candidate’s principle as well. Illinois Senator Stephen A Douglas championed “popular sovereignty,” the power of the territories themselves, rather than the federal government, to enact territorial slave codes.

      The Northern Democrats were historically correct, at least on the specific point in dispute. Congress had not been in the practice of...

  8. Part III Slavery, Sectionalism, and Partisan Politics

    • “Hurtful to the State”: The Political Morality of Federalist Antislavery
      (pp. 207-226)
      Rachel Hope Cleves

      On January 1, 1795, Massachusetts Federalist Congressman Samuel Dexter introduced an amendment to the Naturalization Act of 1790 requiring that if a new immigrant to the United States “shall hold any person in slavery he shall renounce it, and declare that he holds all men free and equal.” Dexter’s amendment hit the House like a bunker buster, penetrating deep and igniting a furious explosion. Virginia Republican William Giles declared that while he “lamented and detested” slavery, “it was impossible at present to help it.” James Madison rebuked Dexter, for such remarks had “a very bad effect on that species of...

    • Slavery and the Problem of Democracy in Jeffersonian America
      (pp. 227-246)
      Padraig Riley

      From the American Revolution to the Civil War, antislavery critics of the United States converged on a stock image of American hypocrisy: the slaveholding republican who yelped for freedom while he drove his Negroes, declaimed in the legislature by day and abused his human chattels by night. From Samuel Johnson to Frances Trollope and beyond, the slaveholding republican was a damning metaphor, capturing in one instant the contradictory reality of early American political culture. Yet it was also fundamentally inaccurate. For many enslaved African Americans, masters who spoke of liberty while they raised the lash were an all-too-frequent reality. The...

    • Neither Infinite Wretchedness nor Positive Good: Mathew Carey and Henry Clay on Political Economy and Slavery during the Long 1820s
      (pp. 247-266)
      Andrew Shankman

      Most Jeffersonians came to power in 1801 in broad agreement about the conditions necessary to produce their empire of liberty, an egalitarian society of independent households. First, the nation’s political economy should remain fundamentally agrarian and geared toward the export of agricultural surpluses. Second, the nation-state should remain small and aloof from domestic life. For the sake of republican liberty, the states were the critical locus of governance. Third, slavery was harmful to whites (much less importantly, also to blacks) and inconsistent with the “genius” of republican citizenship. Slavery, the result of a “culture of infinite wretchedness,” warped republican citizens...

    • The Decline of Antislavery Politics, 1815–1840
      (pp. 267-290)
      Donald J. Ratcliffe

      The 1830s have traditionally been regarded as the time when sectional tensions over slavery heightened suddenly, dramatically, decisively. Historians have assumed that after the constitutional debates of 1787 argument over slavery disappeared for four decades. Then, the appearance of William Lloyd Garrison’sThe Liberatorin 1831, the organization of the American Antislavery Society in 1833, and the evangelizing abolitionist campaigns that followed across the North, revived awareness of the issue and provoked a gradually intensifying confrontation with the slave states. Thus, the evolution of antislavery agitation is viewed from the perspective of the Civil War, as a key part of...

  9. Commentary Conflict vs. Racial Consensus in the History of Antislavery Politics
    (pp. 291-304)
    James Oakes

    Here’s one way to write the history of race and slavery in American politics between the Revolution and the Civil War:

    The American Revolution unleashed a powerful antislavery movement that resulted in the abolition of slavery in every Northern state, thousands of manumissions in the Upper South, a ban on the expansion of slavery into the Northwestern territories, and eventually the closing of the Atlantic slave trade. But as quickly as this antislavery movement took hold, it just as suddenly collapsed; as impressive as its achievements were, they were also limited. Slaves in the North, for example, were freed only...

  10. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 305-308)
  11. Index
    (pp. 309-313)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 314-315)