Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification

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Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification

Author: David Waldstreicher
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright: 2009
Pages: 208
Cover Price: $ 25.00

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Taking on decades of received wisdom, David Waldstreicher has written the first book to recognize slavery’s place at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. Famously, the Constitution never mentions slavery. And yet, of its eighty-four clauses, six were directly concerned with slaves and the interests of their owners. Five other clauses had implications for slavery that were considered and debated by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the citizens of the states during ratification. This “peculiar institution” was not a moral blind spot for America’s otherwise enlightened framers, nor was it the expression of a mere economic interest. Slavery was as important to the making of the Constitution as the Constitution was to the survival of slavery. 

By tracing slavery from before the revolution, through the Constitution’s framing, and into the public debate that followed, Waldstreicher rigorously shows that slavery was not only actively discussed behind the closed and locked doors of the Constitutional Convention, but that it was also deftly woven into the Constitution itself. For one thing, slavery was central to the American economy, and since the document set the stage for a national economy, the Constitution could not avoid having implications for slavery. Even more, since the government defined sovereignty over individuals, as well as property in them, discussion of sovereignty led directly to debate over slavery’s place in the new republic. Finding meaning in silences that have long been ignored, Slavery’s Constitution is a vital and sorely needed contribution to the conversation about the origins, impact, and meaning of our nation’s founding document.

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Background Information

American slaves were almost entirely African and formed the basis of the cotton economy of the South until the Civil War. The Constitutional Convention produced the document but the Constitution did not take effect until ratified by two-thirds of the states, and the process continued until Rhode Island agreed in 1790. The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 to produce a successor to the inadequate Articles of Confederation.