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Institute Themes

The Scholarly Debate

Cotton Culture, 1875Woven into the institute will be discussions of the continuing scholarly debates over slavery and the Constitution, which starts with antebellum abolitionists, jurists and politicians. Modern scholarship began with Charles Beard, who argued in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) that slavery was relatively unimportant in the making of the Constitution. Historians in the 1950s and 1960s often ignored the issue, except to condemn the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision. Since the 1960s numerous scholars have reconsidered the issues. Most scholars accept that the Constitution protected slavery, but disagree on the extent of this protection and the motivations of the framers who interpreted the Constitution. Paul Finkelman will present an overview of the scholarly debates from the Constitution’s birth to the present, and various readings will illuminate this debate such as recent articles by historian Sean Wilentz arguing that the Constitution was antislavery and historian David Waldstreicher arguing it was proslavery.

Slavery and the Founding

This topic explores how slavery was integrated into the Constitution, what clauses affected slavery, and how the framers thought about slavery. Did the Constitution protect slavery, as abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, southern politicians and many scholars have argued, or was the Constitution inherently antislavery as some abolitionists, moderate politicians and some modern scholars argue?

Constitutional Politics of American Slavery

The institute will consider the constitutional claims of proslavery politicians (John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis), abolitionists (William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass), moderates (Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln), antislavery politicians (Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward) and Supreme Court justices (Roger B. Taney, John McLean, Joseph Story) in cases like Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). We will see how slavery ultimately undermined most national churches, national political parties, a number of presidential administrations and respect for the rule of law. This institute will explore the constitutional aspects of the Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). How did the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause and the legislation to implement it set the stage for the Civil War? What were the constitutional implications of violent opposition to slavery, such as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, John Brown’s Raid and numerous fugitive slave rescues? Similarly, we will consider how the Constitution affected slave state laws banning free speech and prohibiting books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. How were constitutional politics influenced by southern violence, such as murdering scores of innocent slaves after the Turner Rebellion or the Missouri mob that crossed into Illinois to murder the abolitionist printer Elijah P. Lovejoy?

The Constitution and the Business of Slavery

Scholars have long debated slavery’s profitability and its impact on the American economy. As we consider these issues and the conflicting scholarship, we will also examine how the Constitution and the Supreme Court affected this issue. For example, Congress never used its commerce power to regulate the interstate slave trade while its prohibitions on the African slave trade were rarely enforced. The institute will also consider how the huge economic value of slavery affected constitutional interpretations and how in turn the Constitution affected the business and economics of slavery.

Antislavery and the Constitution

Opponents of slavery heatedly debated the Constitution. Garrison called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death and an Agreement in Hell” and favored northern secession under the slogan “No Union with Slaveholders.” Political abolitionists like Chase and Seward used existing parties or started third parties to fight slavery within the constitutional structure. The institute will examine the constitutional arguments of all sides of this debate, explore how various constitutional theories affected politics, and look at how different scholars have interpreted this evidence. We will also consider how the antislavery movement used constitutional ideals and rights – such as the First and Fifth Amendments – to further its agenda, and how the movement became increasingly political. One example of this will be our discussion of how Frederick Douglass transitioned from an anti-constitutional Garrisonian, who rejected the political arena, to a Liberty Party (and later Republican) activist who argued the Constitution could be used to fight slavery. The institute will also study the constitutional implications of the underground railroad, which encouraged illegal behavior. This discussion will conclude with the constitutional issues surrounding emancipation from 1862 to 1865.

Constitutional Crisis Over Slavery

The institute will examine the Supreme Court’s decisions on slavery. While Dred Scott is the most famous case, there are many others worth noting, especially the major cases on black freedom suits, African slave trade and fugitive slaves like Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842). Did Prigg and Dred Scott help stabilize the Union, and did they help slavery, or antislavery? Did the Constitution’s clauses dealing with slavery (even though the word slavery is never used) make the Civil War inevitable?

This institute will enable participants to appreciate the crucial significance of slavery to American constitutional development. The target audience will extend to those teaching survey and specialized courses in American studies, history, government, civics, humanities, popular culture, comparative religion, philosophy, literature, social science, political science, comparative politics and, of course, any or all units and courses dealing with slavery and the anti-slavery movement.




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