- Slavery, Freedom and Expansion in the Early American West
In John Craig Hammond's Slavery, Freedom and Expansion in the Early American West, the debate over the politics of slavery is moved out of Washington and into the territories of the Louisiana Purchase and the Northwest Territory. Hammond traces the debates over slavery in Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois from the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1790 until the Missouri Crisis in 1820. As these states were admitted into the Union, each contended with the question of whether to allow slavery within their borders. Hammond argues that the decisions made in local political arenas were far more important in securing the nation as a slaveholder's republic than any laws passed in Congress. Because the federal government was rather weak and over-extended in the early republic, ample room was left for legislators and advocates in the territories to lobby for proslavery legislation that would take effect when the territories were admitted as states. Further, proslavery legislation was seen as critical to the process of western expansion long before the Missouri Controversy brought it to national attention. In spite of the antislavery Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance, Congress did not pass similar restrictions in the Southwest Territories due in part to "the weaknesses of the federal government … that greatly amplified the influence that westerners could exercise over the federal government" (11). Because of this imbalance, proslavery settlers in the Southwest Territories were able to advance their cause. The federal government was more concerned with expanding settlement in the West, and in many cases saw proslavery legislation as the price they had to pay to continue the course of expansion.
Hammond therefore argues for a recentering of our understanding about the slavery debate. Instead of focusing on the limited debates in Washington, the important conversations happened in the territories among westerners. The Washington-centric historiography "produces a distorted understanding" (5) of the reasons why slavery was federally sanctioned and its expansion was not checked. By refocusing attention on the territories themselves, Hammond demonstrates that securing the nation as a slaveholder's republic was not done through a process of [End Page 518] neglect, but instead was due to westerners' advocacy for proslavery laws. Hammond claims that this process of allowing each territory to decide the question independently led directly to the Missouri Controversy and the ability of southern politicians to argue that slavery was both necessary and permanent by 1820.
Hammond further claims that while Washington politicians could do little about deciding the question of slavery, they were not indifferent to the issue, and northerners did not leave the debates to the southern representatives. Instead of dismissing petitions from Indiana to repeal Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance, Congress referred them to committees, where they were discussed but later tabled. This action, Hammond contends, goes against the traditional view that the House was in the control of the southerners, and instead he argues that northern politicians chose their battles carefully and were intent on preserving slavery in areas where it was possible, as in Indiana and Illinois (109).
Slavery, Freedom and Expansion presents a compelling counternarrative to the question of how the nation became a slaveholder's republic during the Jeffersonian era. Hammond creatively mines the records of local political elites in the territories in order to present his case that the real work on behalf of the expansion or suppression of slavery was being done in those territories rather than in the halls of Congress by established southern politicians and planters. By using local newspapers, Hammond ably traces the contours of the debates as they unfolded. The backgrounds of the major contributors to the debates are identified, and through this, Hammond in many cases makes the political personal. Hammond also places a great deal of emphasis on toasts given at political events and other public ceremonies. They were, he argues, a good gauge of popular sentiment among both proslavery and antislavery factions. From these, Hammond draws conclusions...