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Book Review

Slavery’s influence on the Constitution

By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2009

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It wasn’t there, but it was.

Slavery wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution, but it was a key theme in many of the sections that outlined the structure of the government of the new nation.

In “Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification,’’ Temple University historian David Waldstreicher discusses how disagreements over slavery shaped debates over the content of the document and about the merits of ratification.

Many of the founders, of course, held contradictory views on the subject. They extolled the virtues of liberty and independence while supporting the retention of slavery, even though they had doubts about its morality.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “as it is we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.’’

This paradoxical attitude prompted British literary critic and ardent Tory Samuel Johnson to ask in his pamphlet “Taxation No Tyranny,’’ “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’’

Many of these slaveholders were active participants during the crafting of the Constitution, and Waldstreicher notes that six of the Constitution’s 84 clauses were directly related to slavery and five others indirectly related. Almost all of these clauses had the effect of keeping the status quo with regard to slavery, he argues.

His book is an effort to disprove the analysis of many prominent historians, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University, that the Constitution was the fulfillment of the American Revolution.

“Like the Constitution, slavery was inherently a matter of fundamental law. It defined the places of people in their society. The Constitution denied the presence of slaves in that society because it privileged politics and representation, but it defined slaves socially even as it denied them,’’ Waldstreicher writes.

He further contends that the document “upraised’’ the powers of the governing class and retained a “place for slavery and other kinds of dependency.’’

These are harsh judgments that have the potential for being the basis of an exciting (at least to history buffs) academic battle. A liberal, younger, and lesser-known scholar takes on the more centrist leaning giants of his field.

Unfortunately, it’s not a fair fight.

Waldstreicher makes selective use of the information, and he doesn’t back up his case all that well.

He argues that “slavery informed the successes of the movement for a stronger national government,’’ but doesn’t explain why for the most part the Federalists attracted a large number of anti-slavery partisans.

Also, in setting up discussion of the ratification fight, he describes the Constitution as a document that “disapproved of slavery by implication’’ which seems to contradict his other key points.

Furthermore, Waldstreicher has a bland writing style, and this makes the book hard to get through, despite its relative brevity. This will limit the appeal of the book among nonscholars.

That is unfortunate because despite the flaws in his argument, the book does a good job of describing the discussions and infighting that characterized the debates over the Constitution. “Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification’’ makes an important contribution by reminding readers of the key events of an important time in American history. It is the conclusions that Waldstreicher draws from them that are problematic.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.

SLAVERY’S CONSTITUTION: From Revolution to Ratification

By David Waldstreicher

Hill and Wang, 195 pp., $25

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