- Slavery and Sectional Strife in the Early American Republic, 1776-1821
Slavery, Missouri Crisis, Antislavery
In writing the introduction to this teaching book, the first in Rowman & Littlefield's American Controversies Series, Gary Kornblith faced a considerable intellectual challenge: how to tell a coherent story while explaining how historians have disagreed over many of that story's parts. Kornblith succeeds impressively well at balancing these opposing demands as he narrates the history of American slavery up to the Missouri Crisis. Kornblith's essay together with the documents that form the book's second half provide students a clear picture of how much slavery's place in the early American republic was, and is, a subject of contention.
Although the stated goal of Kornblith's sixty-page interpretive essay is to "summarize major findings of . . . scholarship" (xii) on early American slavery, the essay in fact does more. Through its structure and content, it argues that slavery and sectionalism were intertwined problems from the Revolution to the early 1820s, and that Americans with antislavery feelings or with qualms about slavery consistently "bowed" (35) to the interests and feelings of slaveholders, especially those in the Deep South. When northerners stopped "bowing" (38) the result was crisis. [End Page 301]
The essay begins with slavery's origins in colonial America, a subject of much historiographical disagreement. The theme of historical—as opposed to historiographical—conflict takes center stage starting with Kornblith's discussion of the Revolutionary period; the ideas of that period brought "an unprecedented ideological challenge to the legitimacy of human bondage" (12). Southern slaveholders began to search for ways to defend against that challenge, and Americans initiated what would become a longstanding sectional debate over how to count slaves for the purposes of continental decisions, initially decisions over taxation. Kornblith credits the Revolution with "lead[ing] to the gradual abolition of slavery in the North" (24) and describes the various methods by which states implemented abolition. He also discusses northern debates over abolition and similar debates in the Upper South and in the national Congress.
Undergraduate readers will thus not be surprised to find that delegates at the Constitutional Convention argued over several issues concerning slavery. Kornblith handles this complicated subject well, and instructors will be glad that he explains that the three-fifths provision did not mean that the Framers considered slaves to be three-fifths of a person. He discusses various historians' views of slavery and the Constitution, and offers his own interpretation that the South won the convention's battles over slavery because "the convention bowed to the demands of the Deep South and barred federal interference with the slave trade before 1808" (35). One could as easily suggest that that on this issue the North won, because an earlier proposal would have prevented any Federal interference with the slave trade.
The following sections of the essay cover important and, to students, less well known material. Kornblith explains a number of early national conflicts over slavery, such as those sparked by the Quakers' 1790 antislave trade petition and by the acquisition of Louisiana. He also mentions blacks' role in advocating for freedom in the early republic. Kornblith's reading of the first years of American Colonization Society emphasizes colonization's wide appeal and stands as an admirably pithy summary of the ACS's early history.
The Tallmadge amendment appears both as a surprise, a contrast to the cooperative spirit of the ACS, and as a natural outgrowth of the repeated sectional disagreements on which the essay has focused. Missouri's admission bill sparked such an intense crisis because of "the democratization of American political culture," the "rise of political parties [End Page 302] and partisan newspapers," the "reduced need for internal party discipline" after the decline of the Federalists, and the fact that "slavery had grown stronger and more entrenched" (55) in the South.
Kornblith's tight, clear essay provides an excellent introduction to the historical documents that form the book's second half. For each of this...