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  • No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding by Sean Wilentz
  • J. M. Opal
Sean Wilentz, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2018). Pp. 368. $26.95 cloth.

The extent to which the Framers of the U.S. Constitution approved of "slavery" during their closed–door convention in 1787 has always been a matter of dispute, not least because the final product of their deliberations did not include that word. The omission weighs heavily on American history. In recent decades, most scholars have read support in that silence. They argue that the Constitution protected slavery in political and thus legal terms, enabling the "peculiar institution" to gain new life during the early 1800s. Growing interest in the cotton booms of the 1790s, the 1810s, and the 1830s has reinforced this view. By promoting an export-based economy where investors and creditors could operate beyond the meddling hand of democratic majorities, we might argue, the Constitution paved the way for some of the most powerful slave-owners in human history.

Sean Wilentz agrees that the rise of the cotton economy brought a "renaissance in plantation slavery" (185). But he makes a compelling case that most of the Framers—and the document they created—did not want it that way. In 1787, [End Page 308] he contends, they merely tolerated slavery as and where it already was, reasonably hoping that it would fade away and carefully refusing to validate the institution as natural or national. True, they made concessions to the haughty masters of South Carolina and Georgia, resulting in the "terrible paradox" (22) of a document that appealed to both pro- and anti-slavery readers. Yet they rejected slavery's fundamental claim that people could hold property in other people, and in the decades that followed, that decision "made all the difference" (268).

Wilentz makes the first of these two arguments in brilliant re-evaluations of the revolutionary years, the Great Convention, and the ratification debates. American protests against British rule in the 1760s and 1770s sparked an anti-slavery esprit from New England to Pennsylvania to Virginia. The increasingly profitable slave trade fell under sudden attack, evidence of a "profound shift in moral perception" (26) on both sides of the Atlantic. It was in this context that the original Federalists gathered to make the United States more united and stately. Their goal was to raise a new and capable government over a sprawling and cheeky people, not to fight about slavery. Yet they had no choice but to cope with the enslaved population while hashing out issues of representation and taxation. Most preferred to see slavery as a declining relic of the benighted past. Many shared a more urgent desire to halt the slave trade.

Only the delegates from the Carolinas and Georgia wanted to keep the hellish ships arriving on American shores. Only they pushed for specific protections for their "species of property." The majority went along with this to a point—many points, in fact—but carefully refused to recognize slavery in name or to imply, much less proclaim, that persons could be property. Wilentz masterfully focuses on the key debates and sub-committees behind the infamous circumlocutions of Article I, sections 2 ("three fifths of all other Persons") and 9 ("migration or immigration of such persons"), and Article IV, section 2 ("[persons] held to service or labor in one state"). These were not the cowardly evasions that many historians—myself included—have presumed them to be, but vigilant bulwarks against slavery's basic rationale. In effect they were messages that the Framers passed down to future lawmakers.

In the first Congresses, however, the increasingly reactionary Federalists showed their true colors by muffling abolitionist protest in service to wealthy southerners seeking new estates in Mississippi and Tennessee. This bought slavery precious time. When Congress split over the status of unfree labor in Missouri during 1819 and 1820, the planters saw no reason to compromise, for they now ruled the rich cotton lands of the Gulf Coast. Their representatives began to speak of the Constitution as positively pro-slavery. So did a...


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pp. 308-311
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