Rethinking the Politics of Slavery, 1776–1836
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Rethinking the Politics of Slavery, 1776–1836
Keywords

Slavery, Civil War, Early republic, Sectionalism

Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New Nation. Edited by John Craig Hammond and Matthew Mason. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. ix + 313, notes, index. Cloth, $49.50; paper, $26.50.)

The final decade of the eighteenth century and the earliest decades of the nineteenth were once considered a “neglected period” of scholarship on the politics of slavery. But no longer. Numerous scholars have examined this period afresh from many perspectives over the past two decades. But as this volume well confirms, we have much still to learn, and to rethink, about the politics of slavery in the early republic.

Some of the same historians who have made the “neglected period” passé are prominent in this volume, making up the majority of the fifteen authors. Firmly planted on familiar historiographical ground, the essays discuss quite varied topics yet contribute to the volume’s overall coherence. The volume’s mission, as I understand it, is to demonstrate that controversies over slavery were incessant in the politics of the early republic (1780s through the 1820s), to explain why this was the case, and to suggest how understanding this phenomenon invites us to alter our views on the evolution of politics from the age of the Founders to the decades before the Civil War.

In their “Introduction,” editors Matthew Mason and John Craig Hammond summarize precisely what I take to be their collection’s salient conclusion: “The issue of slavery repeatedly entered into state, regional, [End Page 493] sectional and international conflicts, in turn feeding into and impinging on politics on the national level” (3). In the early republic, in other words, conflicts over slavery were frequent, serious, many faceted, usually from “the bottom up,” and above all fundamental to the systemic functioning of the larger political system. Disagreements over slavery, moreover, quite often became implicated in debates over other contested issues unrelated to bondage, causing the volatile language of slavery and antislavery to insinuate itself deeply and early on the new nation’s political culture.

Mason and Hammond caution that a proper understanding of these dynamics requires stifling instincts to seek the origins of Civil War causation in these earlier politics of slavery. Their advice is exactly right and pays a big dividend. By focusing on their subjects without anticipating the political crises over slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, the essayists push their inquiries well beyond familiar investigations of elite politicians, the wording of the Founders’ Constitution, debates restricted within the walls of Congress, chronologies of individual state-making and so forth. Instead they either expand on topics about which we know too little or offer perspectives that may, to some, be new.

The findings of these essays make it clear that disagreements over slavery were ubiquitous, substantial, and significant enough in the early republic to require historians to assay their meaning carefully. Together, they posit an invigorating challenge to the way in which antebellum political history is customarily organized. No matter what their specific interest, students of sectional politics will find real value in this collection.

Mason and Hammond’s “Introduction” outlines their collection’s overall claims and offers a reliable outline of its structure and content. After that, the collection divides into three headings. Part I, Slavery and Ideology, Action and Inaction, explores connections between belief systems and political choices. Part II, The State and Slavery, addresses ways in which slavery issues shaped law, economy, and institutions of racial domination. Part III, Slavery, Sectionalism and Partisan Politics, offers just what its title promises. It is here that the historiographical implications of this volume for political historians are most clearly delineated.

Part I, focused on ideology, is anchored by Matthew Mason’s “Necessary But Not Sufficient: Revolutionary Ideology and Antislavery Action in the Early Republic,” an expansive analysis of when and why anti-slavery [End Page 494] beliefs translated into antislavery actions—and when and why they did not. Next, Eva Sheppard Wolf ’s “Early Free-Labor Thought and the Contest over Slavery in the Early Republic” analyzes the origins of the North’s “free-soil...