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In this book, Fehrenbacher explored the relationship of the Federal government to slavery from the formulation of the constitution through the Civil War. The quality of writing is excellent and the level of scholarship high. Fehrenbacher's points are buttressed by his careful analysis of American legislative and legal history.
Fehrenbacher begins with the issue of whether or not the Constitution protected slavery. This charge was made initially by Abolitionists in the 1840s and has been often repeated in recent years. Fehrenbacher's close analysis reaches a different conclusion. His view, well supported by careful reading of the original documents, is that the Constitution was neutral towards slavery. The Founders meant neither to protect nor discourage slavery. Many of the clauses cited as protecting slavery were the product of other concerns, notably the primary concern with producing a constitution acceptable to all sections.
What followed the implementation of the Constitution was, however, another matter. Fehrenbacher devotes several well documented chapters to the different way in which the Federal government supported slavery. These include protection of slavery within the District of Columbia, foreign policy actions that protected the privileges of slaveholders, Federal censorship of Abolitionist propaganda, and Federal support of fugitive slave pursuits. For example, successive American governments were remarkably lax in pursuing suppression of American commercial involvement in the African slave trade, well after importation of slaves into the USA was abolished.
The Federal tilt towards slavery was the product, not of constitutional protection, but of Southern domination of the Federal branch and Southern political unity on any issue touching slavery. Federal involvement in protecting slavery produced recurrent crises whenever the question of slavery expansion into newly acquired territories occurred. Fehrenbacher has a nice description of these recurrent crises though this is an oft described problem.
Finally, Fehrenbacher demonstrates why the South found the election of Lincoln to be so threatening. After benefiting from decades of Federal tilt towards slavery, Southerners were convinced that Republican domination of the Executive branch would result in a Rederal anti-slavery tilt and put slavery at risk in the whole USA. Fehrenbacher then concludes with a nice concise description of Federal policy towards slavery during the Civil War and Reconstruction, including Lincoln's crucial role.
An fine and well written book.
In 'The Slaveholding Republic', Fehrenbacher returns to themes very similar to the ones examined in 'Dred Scot'. Both books are about how the experiment in freedom established by the American Founding Fathers dealt with the paradox pointed out by Samuel Johnson "how is it that the greatest yelp for liberty come from the drivers of nigros?"
'Dred Scot' focused on two main themes - the status of slaves (and free blacks) in the law, and the legal/political questions of the power to abolish and establish slavery.
'The Slaveholding Republic' deals with these themes, but presents a broader picture. In the first chapter, Fehernbacher deals with the constitution's attitude to slavery. Fehernbacher is clearly upset about attacks on the constitution as a pro-slavery tool, and he makes a convincing case that the constitution neither supported nor condemned slavery, and that if anything, the very wording (avoiding the word 'slave' entirely) shows unease with slavery.
The second chapter deals with slavery in Washington DC. Until the 1830s, slavery in the capital was only a minor political issue. With the rise of Garrisonian abolitionism, attacks on slavery in the capital started to increase, but until the civil war, the only achievement reached was the barring of the slave trade in it.
Whatever debate was running within the US about slavery, to the world, the US was unquestionably a slave holding republic, constantly trying to defend pro slavery interests, especially in compensating slave holders for slave carried away. Even people with anti-Slavory convictions such as John Qunicy Adams treated slaves as property for those purposes.
Two chapters deal with the Slave trade. In it, Fehrenbacher diffrentiates between importation of slaves to the US, which was effectively surpressed, and the atlantic slave trade to Cuba and Brazil, in which Americans, because of the US's passive support, played a large roll up to the late 1850s.
The next two chapters are about the Fugitive Slave Laws. In essence, those demonstrate a conflict between the clause in the constitution obliging the return of escaping slaves, to the defence of free slaves from kidnapping. Until the 1830s, most clashes developed due to the Northern states trying to protect free blacks from kiddnapping. But with time, these laws became obstructionists, preventing even the retension of fugitives. As part of the 1850 compromise, a draconian fugitive slave law was enforced, crashing the rights of free blacks and raising strong objections from Northern abolitionists, especially in New England.
The two final chapters bring us to the outbreak of the civil war. Fehrenbacher manages to sum the arguments he raises in 'Dred Scot', without making the reader feel he's returning to the same grounds. Rather, the intepretations are striking. I was especially interested with Stephen Dauglas's role in the session crises. Twice in the 1850s, Dauglas's actions contributed to the dissolation of the union and the coming of the war. In 1852, his ilcalculated move with the Kensas-Nebraska act harmed raised Southern expectations and alienated Northerners. In 1857, the life long compromiser Dauglas suddenly became a man commited to the 'great principle' of popular sovreignty, breaking down the Democratic party as he did it. Had Dauglas managed to come up with a compromise, he might have remained the head of the united democratic party in the 1860 election, and after his defeat, he might have had enough influence to keep the South in the union. Of course, the counter factual is fanciful, but it is nonetheless intriguing.
This chapter and the next were completed by Fehrenbacher's former student, historian Ward M. McAfee. For the most part, McAfee does a commendable job, and writes good prose, which is very effective, even if it is not quite as elegant as Fehernbacher. It would be interesting to know how much of the last two quarters McAfee completed. My guess would be about one quarter of the first and half of the last. McAfee, continues Fehrenbacher's thesis very well, and there are few if any discrenible slips in the argument. However, McAfee has a tendency to moralise which I found slightly irritating.
The last chapter explains why the rise of the Republican party was such a threat to the South, despite Lincoln's repeat assurences that he meant no harm to slavery 'where it existed'. Ultimately, slavery depended not only on the States right to control their own domestic institutions, but also on support from a pro-slavery federal government. Lincoln's election meant that for the first time, the South was no longer representitive of America. The slaveholding republic was no more, and slavery was on the route to extinction. Slaveholders' attempt to recreate the Slaveholding republic was the source of sescession, and the Civil War that brought a fast ending to the the institution.
During the time of the American Revolution, slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, man of the enlightment, considered slavery to be a great evil. As an older man, settled into Southern ways, he let his antislavery convictions deteriorate into mere rethorics. Until Abraham Lincoln's election, the United States prefered to ignore Jefferson's words that "all men were created equal", and it was truly a Slaveholding republic.
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