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Review: Was the Constitution a Pro-Slavery Document?

Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution
By James Oakes

It was not long after the federal Constitution was created in 1787 that many antislavery Northerners began labeling it a pro-slavery document. Parts of it did support slavery — the clause that counted a slave as three-fifths of a person, which gave the slave states greater representation in Congress and the Electoral College than opponents of slavery believed they deserved; and the fugitive slave clause, which required persons held to service who had escaped to free states to be returned to their owners.

Because these poisonous clauses seemed to enable Southern slaveholders to dominate the national government in the early decades of the 19th century, the rabid abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison eventually concluded that the Constitution was a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.” Oddly this view of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document was what the fervent hard-line apologists for slavery, like Senator John C. Calhoun and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, believed as well.

We have long known of this pro-slavery view of the Constitution, one that has been much emphasized at the present time. Less well known is an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution mounted by abolitionists and other opponents of slavery to counter the views of the Southern “slave power.” In “The Crooked Path to Abolition,” his very solid, carefully and rigorously argued book, James Oakes, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, describes and analyzes the antislavery constitutionalism that emerged in a dialectical struggle with pro-slavery constitutionalism in antebellum America.

The Northern opponents of slavery began by emphasizing that the Constitution never mentioned “slaves” or “slavery,” that it never accepted the idea that there could be property in man and that with the ending of the international slave trade in 1808 it promised a future for the nation without the despicable institution. Although the antislavery advocates conceded that the Constitution gave no authority to Congress to interfere with slavery within the states, they stressed that it did grant power to Congress to curb and limit the institution in a variety of other ways.

Read entire article at New York Times