Intellectual Grounding

slavery illustrationSlavery is of overriding importance in understanding the history of the American Republic. The moral and constitutional issues raised by the institution of slavery are profound. Focusing on slavery and its relationship to the U.S. Constitution, the institute’s participants will present their latest scholarship of this vital issue in American history based on new research to help illuminate the evolution of American slavery. The institute will explore in a systematic way the major constitutional issues dealing with slavery, starting with the writing of the Constitution and the compromise known as the three-fifths person “solution.” 

Institute scholars will examine key movements and moments in the abolitionist cause such as the evolution of the underground railroad which helped slaves escape north to freedom. The importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, will be studied with its bold challenge to the Southern myth that slaves were contented and even happy in their situation. Southern planters lived in fear of slave rebellions like that of Nat Turner while radical northern abolitionists sought ways to foment such rebellions. Many slaves did rebel by simply running away in a courageous act of disobedience. Slave owners hoped the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law would force northerners to assist in the capture and return of these run-away slaves. The United States Supreme Court‘s 1857 Dred Scott decision that slaves were subhuman property with no rights of citizenship was probably helpful to the abolitionist cause in showing that slaves had no legal way to address any of the many injustices perpetrated against them.

Of course, there were many attempts to find constitutionally acceptable compromises that would keep slavery from tearing apart the American Republic. Stephen Douglas, Daniel Webster, and above all the slave owner and Speaker of the House Henry Clay tried over many years to create solutions to not only keep slavery in place, but expand it to the west. Clay always believed that it was possible to appease the North on the slavery issue. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were the major edifices of legislative compromise. By the time of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, the era of compromise was over and the clouds of war were forming.

The importance of serious and renewed consideration of the constitutional issues associated with slavery in the American Republic and the role they played in the era cannot be overstated. This summer institute will take up five major themes/topics and related issues about slavery and the Constitution to understand that role. These topics/themes will help guide participants in the rigorous interdisciplinary dialogue that will take place during the institute. They will have available to them not only exceptional scholars and the rich resources of site visits, but will also have access to premier documentary histories and personal accounts of slavery during the antebellum period.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this NEH Institute do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.