A slaveholders' union : the law and politics of American slavery, 1770-1821

Van Cleve, George William, Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, University of Virginia
McCurdy, Charles, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how and why American slavery survived the American Revolution and became a permanent national legal and political institution by 1821. Was this development a paradoxical failure to fulfill the egalitarian natural rights principles of the Revolution? Or was it the disastrous harvest of the era's sectionally divisive politics, conflicting views on government and freedom, and shared desires for westward expansion? To consider this problem, the study covers the period from just before the Revolution to the second Missouri Compromise, and focuses on political and legal developments related to slavery at both the state and federal levels, using constitutions, statutes, court cases, legislative records, newspapers, pamphlets, and personal and association papers as its primary sources.

A major portion of the dissertation consists of analyses of the relation between slavery and the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Slavery received essential protection from the Articles and the Constitution because slave states were able to demand its protection as a sine qua non in framing governments and western expansion policy in light of Northern public indifference to slavery's fate outside the North. The dissertation concludes that the expansion of slavery was a price that Americans reluctantly but willingly paid for one of the Revolution's crowning achievements: a new government powerful enough to help build an American empire yet committed to federalism as a central foundation of freedom.

To aid in understanding slavery's politics, the dissertation also analyzes Northern abolition and Southern manumission laws. Abolition laws often reflected changes in Northern economies and encouragement of white immigration. Such laws shifted virtually all of the socioeconomic costs of abolition to blacks, and their enforcement was exceptionally poor, reflecting community indifference and racial hostility.

Finally, the dissertation considers struggles over slavery in implementing the Constitution and during national expansion, including the Louisiana Purchase and the Missouri Controversy. By 1819, slavery had grown powerful enough to withstand the Northern states' challenge to its expansion. The outcome of that sectional struggle was a fragile equilibrium that reduced the Constitution to a compact on slavery and created a brittle new foundation for antebellum politics.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Revolution, slavery

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2015-09-28 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:37:57.

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