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Contesting Slavery

The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation

John Craig Hammond, Matthew Mason

Publication Year: 2011

The fifteen original essays in this collection examine the politics of slavery and antislavery in the traditionally overlooked period between the 1770s and the 1840s, challenging the standard narrative in which slavery played a peripheral role in regional and national politics.

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. viiii-x

It has been a privilege to work with so many fine people and institutions in the preparation of this volume. Jim Oakes’s astute and insightful commentary at a 2007 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) panel provided the rationale for this volume. Peter Onuf and Dick Holway at the University of Virginia Press have...

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pp. xii-xvii

Slavery has shaped our national narrative. It has been the dark counterpoint to the progress of democracy, a stark reminder that the American Revolution’s promise would long remain unfulfilled for many Americans. The juxtaposition between American slavery and American freedom has led recent generations of historians to subject the founding generation to relentless...

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Introduction: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Politics in the Early American Republic

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pp. 1-8

The great thirty-year drama that stretched from 1831 to 1861 has dominated historians’ accounts of the politics of slavery and sectionalism in the United States. Historians generally agree that the parallel emergence of immediate abolitionism and Deep South extremism, punctuated by Nat Turner’s rebellion, initiated the great sectional conflicts that would overtake American politics after...

PART I: Slavery and Ideology, Action and Inaction

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Necessary but Not Sufficient: Revolutionary Ideology and Antislavery Action in the Early Republic

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pp. 11-31

For decades, scholars have debated what effect the ideology of the American Revolution had on slavery. For some, the Revolutionary ideals of universal liberty and equality presented a fundamental and straightforward challenge to slavery. Bernard Bailyn, for instance, has posited that the ideology of the Revolution touched off a ‘‘contagion of liberty’’ that struck down entrenched institutions...

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Early Free-Labor Thought and the Contest over Slavery in the Early Republic

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pp. 32-48

A generation before Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, criticized slavery as less efficient than free labor, Benjamin Franklin advanced a similar argument. In his 1751 essay, ‘‘Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind . . . ,’’ Franklin claimed that a series of reasoned calculations proved that free labor was economically superior to slave labor...

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‘‘Manifest Signs of Passion’’: The First Federal Congress, Antislavery, and Legacies of the Revolutionary War

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pp. 49-68

In February 1790, the first United States Congress took up the task of giving life to one of its constitutionally enumerated powers: to establish a uniform rule of naturalization. Delegates debated several provisions of the Naturalization Bill, including the question of how long aliens would be required to live in America before becoming eligible for citizenship...

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‘‘Good Communications Corrects Bad Manners’’: The Banneker-Jefferson Dialogue and the Project of White Uplift

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pp. 69-93

Although it marked the only semi-official contact between a federal governing official and a black reformer in the early national period, the exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker in 1791 still flies under the scholarly radar. Perusing recent titles on the ever expanding shelf of Jefferson studies, for instance, reveals little extended discussion of Banneker—a rather...

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Caribbean Slave Revolts and the Origins of the Gag Rule: A Contest between Abolitionism and Democracy, 1797–1835

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pp. 94-113

On December 18, 1835, when Congressman William Jackson of Massachusetts presented a petition from his constituents for the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., James Henry Hammond of South Carolina countered with a unique response. He moved that the petition ‘‘be not received.’’ House Speaker James Polk replied that such a motion had never been voiced, and off and on for...

Part II: The State and Slavery

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Founding a Slaveholders’ Union, 1770–1797

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pp. 117-137

During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Abraham Lincoln argued that ‘‘our fathers’’ had created a Union whose Constitution and founding principles envisioned that slavery would be ‘‘placed . . . in the course of ultimate extinction’’ when possible. Stephen Douglas disagreed vehemently, and their epic contest over the issue resounded throughout the nation.1 In our time, historians...

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‘‘Uncontrollable Necessity’’: The Local Politics, Geopolitics, and Sectional Politics of Slavery Expansion

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pp. 138-160

In one of the most oft-repeated statements from the early republic, Thomas Jefferson likened the Missouri Controversy to an unexpected ‘‘firebell in the night.’’ Jefferson knew better. In November 1818, New Yorker James Tallmadge tried to block the admission of Illinois into statehood because slavery was ‘‘not sufficiently prohibited’’ in its constitution. Six months earlier, New Hampshire...

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Positive Goods and Necessary Evils: Commerce, Security, and Slavery in the Lower South, 1787–1837

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pp. 161-182

Situating the region most committed to slavery, the Lower South, within the politics and history of the early United States remains a difficult task. Much of the literature makes the region the exception to most rules. As the rest of America transformed the Revolutionary spirit into a liberal-capitalist nation, Georgians, and particularly South...

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Slave Smugglers, Slave Catchers, and Slave Rebels: Slavery and American State Development, 1787–1842

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pp. 183-203

The 1860 Democratic Convention fractured over the demand of the Southern Democrats for a federally imposed territorial slave code. The Northern Democrats refused to accede to this demand, which they saw as an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government on a traditional state and local function. Their principle was their candidate’s principle as well. Illinois Senator Stephen A Douglas championed ‘‘popular sovereignty,’’ the power of the...

Part III: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Partisan Politics

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‘‘Hurtful to the State’’: The Political Morality of Federalist Antislavery

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pp. 207-226

On January 1, 1795, Massachusetts Federalist Congressman Samuel Dexter introduced an amendment to the Naturalization Act of 1790 requiring that if a new immigrant to the United States ‘‘shall hold any person in slavery he shall renounce it, and declare that he holds all men free and equal.’’ Dexter’s amendment hit the House like a bunker buster, penetrating deep and igniting a...

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Slavery and the Problem of Democracy in Jeffersonian America

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pp. 227-246

From the American Revolution to the Civil War, antislavery critics of the United States converged on a stock image of American hypocrisy: the slaveholding republican who yelped for freedom while he drove his Negroes, declaimed in the legislature by day and abused his human chattels by night. From Samuel Johnson to Frances Trollope and beyond, the slaveholding republican was a damning metaphor, capturing in one instant the contradictory reality of...

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Neither Infinite Wretchedness nor Positive Good: Mathew Carey and Henry Clay on Political Economy and Slavery during the Long 1820s

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pp. 247-266

Most Jeffersonians came to power in 1801 in broad agreement about the conditions necessary to produce their empire of liberty, an egalitarian society of independent households. First, the nation’s political economy should remain fundamentally agrarian and geared toward the export of agricultural surpluses. Second, the nation-state should remain small and aloof from domestic...

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The Decline of Antislavery Politics, 1815–1840

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pp. 267-290

The 1830s have traditionally been regarded as the time when sectional tensions over slavery heightened suddenly, dramatically, decisively. Historians have assumed that after the constitutional debates of 1787 argument over slavery disappeared for four decades. Then, the appearance of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator in 1831, the organization of the American Antislavery Society...

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Commentary: Conflict vs. Racial Consensus in the History of Antislavery Politics

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pp. 291-303

Here’s one way to write the history of race and slavery in American politics between the Revolution and the Civil War: The American Revolution unleashed a powerful antislavery movement that resulted in the abolition of slavery in every Northern state, thousands of manumissions in the Upper South, a ban on the expansion of slavery into the Northwestern territories, and eventually the closing of the Atlantic slave trade. But as...

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 305-307


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pp. 309-315

E-ISBN-13: 9780813931173
E-ISBN-10: 0813931177
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931050
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931053

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- 18th century.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1775-1783.
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