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Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification Hardcover – June 23, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


“Was the American Constitution as originally ratified a proslavery document? In this unflinching, deeply intelligent, and persuasive work, David Waldstreicher answers yes. Sure to spark interest and debate, Slavery’s Constitution is an immensely engaging and valuable contribution to the literature on the founding of the American nation.” —Annette Gordon-Reed
“Succinct and shrewd, David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution enables us to understand a central element of American political practice that the founders sought to obscure.” —Linda K. Kerber
“David Waldstreicher’s intriguing new book brilliantly shows the founding fathers’ republican constitution to be, in important part, central to their many evasions of slavery’s antirepublican nature.” —William W. Freehling
“With as light a touch as its hard truths permit, Slavery’s Constitution explains the deep, complex, and pervasive entanglement that ultimately doomed the United States to civil war.” —Robin L. Einhorn
“David Waldstreicher’s brilliant little book sets the terms of debate for all further discussion of slavery and the Constitution.” —James Oakes
“Highly readable and provocative in conception.” —Thomas J. Davis, Library Journal
“A closely argued critique that exposes the deadly implications of the Constitution’s careful euphemisms about slavery.” —Kirkus Reviews
After they won the revolution, how did the framers of our government deal with slavery without becoming hypocrites? They didn’t—and instead wove slavery into their Constitution to ensure its perpetuation, historian David Waldstreicher persuasively argues in his slender, provocative book.” —Cameron McWhirter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Waldstreicher’s interpretation is likely to be controversial, but then, he is no stranger to examining the tarnish on American icons. In Runaway America, he questioned the anti-slavery credentials of Benjamin Franklin. Little wonder that he concludes here that ‘Slavery’s Constitution,’ not slavery itself,caused the Civil War.” —Roger K. Miller, Chicago Sun-Times
“An important contribution.” —Claude R. Marx, The Boston Globe
“In this important new book, [Waldstreicher] writes that while the U.S. Constitution never mentions slavery, ‘slavery is all over the document.’ ” —Steve Goddard,“An interesting exploration of the influence of slavery on early American politics and life.” —Curled Up with a Good Book
“In a succinct but carefully reasoned study, Temple University history professor David Waldstreicher shows how slave state delegates to the Constitutional Convention leveraged the issue to their advantage, and how ardent federalists from the North, many of them opposed to slavery, came to a consensus of silence over the Constitution’s role in countenancing slavery.” —David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express
Slavery’s Constitution will certainly set the terms of the debate over the institution of human bondage and the 1787 Constitution for years to come.” —Erik J. Chaput, The Providence Journal

About the Author

David Waldstreicher is a professor of history at Temple University and is the author of Runaway America (H&W, 2004) and In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (June 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809094533
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809094530
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #346,927 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on October 25, 2014
Format: Paperback
A concise and mildly polemical book discussing the role of the Constitution as a shield for slavery in the early American republic. Waldstreicher's point of departure is historiographic in that he points out that discussions of the role of slavery figure very little in several of the standard discussions of the American revolution and the formation of the Constitution such as Bernard Bailyn's great Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon Wood's magisterial The Creation of the American Republic. Waldstreicher makes a good argument that the Constitution was partly constructed to protect chattel slavery, a charge made in the early to mid-19th century by prominent abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison.

Waldstreicher opens with useful discussion of the role of slavery in the outbreak and events of the Revolution. The most salient fact is the great role of slavery in the colonial economy, which was crucial not only to the Southern states but also to several of the Northern states. He highlights the importance of the famous Somersett decision that destroyed the concept that chattel slavery in the British Empire enjoyed fundamental constitutional protection. He discusses also the British efforts to recruit slaves as soldiers during the Revolution and the great anxiety engendered among slaveholders by the relatively successful British efforts. There is also an interesting discussion of the rhetorical use of slavery in the debates about colonial relations with Britain.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Sceptique500 on April 20, 2011
Format: Paperback
The impact of slavery on the US Constitution is a fact insufficiently explored. An analysis would have been welcome. Five questions (and more) need answering:

(a) Which clauses were inserted to "protect" the peculiar institution? The 3/5 rule changing the representation key (both in the House and in the Electoral College) springs to mind. There are other rules.

(b) Which clauses were "altered" so as favorably to affect the peculiar institution? The prohibition of export taxes or the cap on duties for the importation of persons may not be the only ones.

(c) Which collateral arrangements were struck (e.g. Northwest Ordinance) and implied?

(d) What did the 2nd Amendment mean in the context of slavery?

(e) Which issues were left unresolved so as to prevent conflicts? This is a difficult silent/counterfactual question, but the federal/state split in responsibility for citizenship/suffrage clearly gives the state leeway in excluding "unwanted" votes. So is the absurdity that slaves born in the US were denied citizenship despite the jus soli established by statute in 1790.

All of this is critical for understanding the role on the Constitution in maintaining slavery - and eventually precluding a constitutional ending to it. How we got to the compromise text or how it was sold to the "people" (1.5 % of "we the people" voted on it) is a subsidiary matter.

In writing this short book the author chose a "narrative" approach that privileges timelines and tactics over substance and analysis. Some of the answers are there, but drowned in the din of day to day politicking by personalities. This is regrettable.
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Format: Paperback
For those wishing an insightful look at the history of the Constitution, this is a keeper. There are others, which are also good, but this author challenges the take of other historians and defends himself well. If you love American history, this is a must.
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21 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Mark E. Smith on April 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book is a welcome addition to my bookshelves, as it helps document the reasons the framers gave us a Constitutional oligarchy rather than a democracy or a republic, and why they lied about it.

Two of the many people you can't trust in this world are slaveholders and politicians, and many of the framers were both.

Recently, a democratic candidate for Congress asked me why I seem (in his opinion) to make a religion of democracy. He, of course, like the framers, believes that there are more important things, such as property rights, business interests, and power. So what if Americans don't have a real voice in government, as long as their betters have the power to make their decisions for them?

Although this country's founders used the right and duty to establish a democratic form of government as justification for their revolution from England, the first thing the framers did was betray that right and trample on that duty.

So here we are in 2010, having "exported democracy" by totally destroying one of the oldest civilizations on earth (Iraq), and continuing our wars of aggression (crimes against humanity) and crony bailouts in the name of and with the consent of citizens of whom a majority oppose both policies, but who do not yet realize that their vote is NOT a voice in government, but just the consent of the governed to allow unaccountable representatives to do whatever they wish.

A recent Rasmussen Report [...] poll showed that only 21% of Americans believe that the U.S. government has the consent of the governed.
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