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Reviewed by:
  • A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic
  • Matthew Mason
A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic. By George William Van Cleve (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010) 391 pp. $39.00

In this volume, Van Cleve offers a particularly uncompromising version of the common wisdom about slavery and the founding of the United States. In this interpretation, colonial, Revolutionary, and early national slaveholders perceived a variety of threats to their property in slaves—ranging from the antislavery decision by William Murray (Lord Mansfield) in the Somerset case through the Missouri controversy in 1819-1821—and repeatedly succeeded in grasping the control over the state necessary to protect and even expand slavery. Van Cleve, along with the majority of current scholars, thus places slavery at the heart of the Founding of the United States, in no instance more so than the Constitution; proslavery bargains "were essential to its drafting and ratification" (143). The American Revolution, far from being a major practical or even ideological blow to slavery, actually left the institution stronger than it had been under British rule.

Northerners join slaveholders in this docket, as Van Cleve puts the worst possible spin on their every move, both local and national. The abolition of slavery by the Northern states after the Revolution was ideologically impoverished, friendly to property rights in men and focused entirely on the racist project of ridding the North of black people. Even the much-ballyhooed Northwest Ordinance's restriction of slavery figures in this narrative as a step backward for antislavery (153-54). On the national level, Northerners (Van Cleve tends to write of them as a unit) proved all too willing to sacrifice slaves' interests for their own narrow economic interests from the 1780s to 1821. One (unacknowledged) irony of this line of argument is that if true, the South need not have been concerned about any Northern threat to slavery.

In the process of advancing this argument, Van Cleve takes no prisoners. From the dedication page forward, he has no patience with those who read antislavery in any way, shape, or form into the platform on which the country was founded. They are practitioners of the worst sort of "Whig history," purveyors of "fables" meant to "deflect this indictment of the Constitution" (v, 5, 135).

This volume adds more to the standard story of the proslavery Constitution than adamancy, however. Van Cleve's training in both law and history pays dividends. He attends unusually closely, for instance, to "the [End Page 309] problem of compensation" involved in abolishing slavery in the North. Because it involved "a powerful—almost unprecedented—use of government coercion to outlaw a specific form of previously lawful property," it constituted "an unusual use of eminent-domain authority" that could have threatened all forms of property if not properly hedged (72). A more extended insight comes in a chapter-length examination of "The Missouri Compact and the Rule of Law." The Missouri Crisis and compromises, he argues, "transformed the Constitution into a sectional 'compact' on slavery, since the Constitution lacked the essential elements of a rule of law" (226). One such element included a clear medium for resolution of disputes centered in the courts, but the inflamed "members of Congress were determined to have Congress—and not the courts—address the constitutional issue" of restricting slavery in Missouri (243).

Although, on the whole, this volume offers merely an extreme version of the majority view about slavery and the founding of the United States, its contributions derive from the interdisciplinary nature of Van Cleve's inquiry, which confer added interest to its findings.

Matthew Mason
Brigham Young University


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pp. 309-310
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