Slavery mattered. That proposition should hardly come as a surprise to historians of the early American republic. Yet David F. Ericson contends that scholars heretofore have underestimated just how much—and in what ways—slavery contributed to the rise of the American national state. Most notably, he seeks to overturn the common perception that "a politically privileged group of Southern slaveholders blocked state development out of fear that a strong state would act to abolish the institution" (p. 1). By his account, pressure to protect and expand slavery produced a more powerful, not a weaker, national government than would otherwise have developed during the antebellum era.
Trained as a political scientist, Ericson builds his case by examining [End Page 93] systematically five "policy areas" involving slavery. "The slave-trade policy area," he writes, "produced a durable shift in authority over border control from the state governments to the federal government" and enhanced the capacities of the national government "to compete on a global stage" (p. 30). Although he concludes that the African colonization policy area had a smaller impact, he observes that assistance to Liberia had "measurable effects on the development of both the Departments of Navy and Interior" (p. 78). A greater transformation occurred in the fugitive-slave policy area. From the early years of the republic, he writes, "the federal government had projected the image of a strong state . . . in pursuing fugitive-slave and slave-loss cases with other nations" (p. 81). The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 "significantly strengthened federal police powers" and represented "the most important antebellum instance of the federal enforcement of the constitutional rights of individual citizens against the states" (pp. 90, 104).
Scholars of state development have long contended that wars promote the growth of administrative power. Ericson offers a new twist on this proposition. "The buried story of early American state development," he writes, "is the story of how the continuing presence of slavery in the Southern states was one cause of the wartime and peacetime activities of the U.S. military, which, in turn, contributed to state development" (p. 109). From the war-making policy area, he turns to federal employment practices. Although he concedes that "slaves formed a much smaller part of the federal workforce than free white laborers did, even in the Southern states," he asserts, "This policy area was . . . significant because federal employment policies were so heavily executive-driven" (pp. 135, 162). Still, this dynamic did not lead to the concentration of decision-making in Washington, D.C. On the contrary, "Federal employment policies on the use of slave labor . . . pushed decision-making to the periphery during the 1791-1861 period, in part because the policies at the center were so Janus-faced" (p. 163).
No doubt slavery did indeed matter to American state development. [End Page 94] But was its main effect to promote a stronger national government, as Ericson argues? His research is impressive, but to this reader's mind his thesis remains unproven. By his own calculations, "major . . . slavery-related federal expenditures" comprised only "2.8 percent of total federal expenditures" before the Civil War (p. 165). More importantly, although he engages in a good deal of counterfactual analysis, he fails to demonstrate persuasively that without slavery the national government would have been either smaller or weaker than it actually was in the antebellum era. It was not accidental that slaveholders played a key leadership role first in the Democratic-Republican Party and later in the Democratic Party or that those parties found their most solid electoral support in the South. They advocated states' rights and opposed a national bank—an essential component of a modern fiscal-military state. They also dominated the federal government for two-thirds of the time between 1789 and 1861. Had the Federalist and Whig Parties exercised such hegemony instead, the national government would have developed into a much more formidable institution during the early nineteenth century, especially vis-á-vis the state governments.
Most American historians take...