- Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic
Matthew Mason seeks to correct the misperception that slavery rarely, if ever, influenced politics during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. He argues that, on the contrary, the issue was everywhere, as either a genuine topic of discussion or a rhetorical device used to shape public opinion or discredit political opponents during national debates that often had little to do with the institution itself. In this way, he challenges the prevailing view that "slavery dropped from the national radar screen" during this era "only to reappear suddenly in 1819." Rather than a controversy that burst upon the scene "as if out of nowhere," maintains Mason, "the bitterness of the Missouri debates was many years in the making" (3). [End Page 91]
The author is most persuasive when discussing the partisan debates that erupted during the War of 1812. In these years, he claims, Federalists effectively employed the politics of slavery to indict southern Republicans and generate broad opposition to Madison's administration and the war effort. Significantly, Mason finds northern politicians exploiting New England anger over the three-fifths clause, warning Americans of the emergence of a slave power that could destroy the republic. It is here, then, that Mason finds much of the language and partisan practices that would emerge fully developed during the slavery debates of the 1850s. "The political combatants during the War of 1812," he declares, "pioneered tactics that would surface in later disputes involving slavery" (42).
While he successfully corrects a scholarly tendency to see the Missouri Controversy as a beginning, an opening salvo in a long and increasingly sectional battle over slavery, Mason's uncritical use of the terms abolition and antislavery threaten to undermine his argument. He states, for example, that "if any one thing characterized abolitionism in its early years, . . . it was opposition to the Atlantic slave trade." Mason then declares that the national debate on this issue in 1806 and 1807 justifies dating "the end of the Revolutionary phase of antislavery at 1808." To the untrained eye, these statements seem to argue that opposition to the slave trade was inherently about abolition and that those who opposed the "nefarious traffic," as Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina called it, were antislavery (15). Most specialists would see these statements as problematic; for, as historians of the era would contend, individuals, North Carolinians and Virginians in particular, voiced opposition to the Atlantic slave trade not because they supported abolition but because they hoped to reap the financial benefits of an emerging domestic slave trade to the expanding southwest. Such a position could hardly be described as antislavery or part of abolitionism, at least as the general reader would understand the terms.
Early in the work, Mason also bases his conclusion that "the American Revolution had created free states and slave states that were drawing sectional battle lines concerning slavery" on an uncritical assessment of the character of post-revolutionary antislavery sentiment (40). He argues that the implementation of northern gradual emancipation programs by 1806 signaled the emergence of a northern "free state" identity. While this statement by itself is not inherently false, it can be misleading. His discussion of these efforts neglects to acknowledge, as Gary Nash showed in Race and Revolution (1990), that southerners were among the first to author gradual [End Page 92] emancipation plans and that the failure to abolish slavery in the South was as much a product of northerners' refusal to nationalize the issue as it was a consequence of diminishing support for abolition in the region. The author's assumption, then, that only northerners were antislavery or sought ways to abolish the institution fails to recognize the complexity and diversity of opposition to the institution in the post-revolutionary era.
Despite these concerns about language, Mason persuasively argues that the Missouri Controversy represented the culmination of at least three decades of political debate in which the rhetoric of slavery played a significant role. After reading this interesting book, few...