|Author(s):||Fehrenbacher, Don E.|
McAfee, Ward M.
|Reviewer(s):||Schaefer, Donald F.|
Published by EH.NET (April, 2002)
Don E. Fehrenbacher, edited and completed by Ward M. McAfee, The
Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations
to Slavery. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xiii + 466
pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-514177-6.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald F. Schaefer, Department of Economics, Washington
State University (retired).
Don Fehrenbacher died in 1997 having substantially completed the manuscript
for this book. His student Professor Ward M. McAfee completed chapters nine,
and ten, wrote the conclusion and edited the entire manuscript. We are indebted
to both for producing a well written and thought provoking work.
Fehrenbacher’s thesis is that the founding fathers did not intend slavery to be
a national institution. However, throughout much of the antebellum period, the
federal government took the position that the institution of slavery was
protected by the Constitution thereby causing sectional conflict and ultimately
eliminating the institution of slavery. This view is in direct opposition to
that of William Lloyd Garrison and his antebellum abolitionist followers who
saw the Constitution as a pro-slavery document.
Chapter one describes two slave property cases brought before Congress. In both
instances the owners lost the use of slave services due to federal government
action and asked for compensation for their property. This in turn led to the
discussion of whether slaves were property under federal law and to the more
fundamental question of the authority of the federal government over the
institution. These cases, occurring in the late 1820s and 1830s were largely
decided by sectional voting in the House of Representatives. But they raised a
broader set of issues concerning the new territories and states in the West,
namely, who was to determine whether slavery was allowed. Fehrenbacher
concludes that while the Constitution guided federal practice with respect to
slavery, federal practice shaped our understanding of the intent of the
Constitution. The remainder of the book makes this case.
Chapters two and three document the early legal framework of the nation to be.
Fehrenbacher argues that the Constitution was only tangentially involved with
slavery and did not signal federal control over the institution. For example,
the ‘three-fifths rule’ was a way of taxing the states rather than a federal
determination about the fundamental worth of slaves. The federal government did
acknowledge its role in the slave trade, but not slavery itself. The congress
did legitimize slavery in the nation’s capital, however Fehrenbacher
characterizes these laws as a ‘series of unthinking decisions’ rather than a
conscious effort to federally endorse slavery even though, de facto, they
appeared to have that result.
Chapters four through six examine the international aspects of slavery through
foreign relations and the slave trade. Here Fehrenbacher argues that the
Constitution is neutral with respect to foreign relations while in practice
diplomacy had acted to protect slavery. For example, the treaty ending the
Revolutionary War prohibited the British from carrying away any Negroes. The
subsequent efforts to enforce this clause, made clear that the federal
government had a role to play in maintaining property rights in slaves. In
1826, the federal government and Britain agreed upon compensation to American
slaveholders of over $1 million for the slaves taken away by the British. The
federal government also pursued the matter of fugitive slaves escaping overland
to territories held by foreign powers. The delay in recognizing Haiti was also
a manifestation of the power of the proslavery lobby in the nation’s capital.
Similarly, the annexation of Texas was widely seen as an attempt to forestall
the efforts of British abolitionists to rid Texas of slaves.
As Fehrenbacher is careful to point out, the United States was both a shipper
and a destination for slaves. Unlike the apparent pro-slavery bias of the
federal government there was no broad support for the international slave
trade. Yet even the constitutionally allowed 1808 abolition of the slave trade
was the subject of intense congressional debate with substantial weakening of
clauses on the coastal slave trade. By the 1820s federal laws effectively
eliminated the importation of slaves while the efforts to eliminate American
involvement in the trade were less successful, with the trade flourishing
through the 1850s. In part this lack of success seems to have been the result
of antipathy towards Britain. Although he doesn’t couch his argument in public
choice terms, Fehrenbacher’s contrast between the governmental and sectional
responses to slavery and the slave trade is consistent with that approach. The
slave trade had no concentrated and powerful forces backing it while the
opposite was true for slavery.
In chapters seven and eight Fehrenbacher turns to the issue of fugitive slaves.
The Constitution, he acknowledges, deals explicitly with this issue. In
addition, the Supreme Court in 1842 ruled that the federal government alone had
jurisdiction over fugitive slaves. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act greatly
expanded the role of the federal government and was perceived as necessary to
calm sectional tensions.
Chapter nine addresses the issue of the federal territories. The Northwest
Ordinance prohibited slavery in the old Northwest while other laws permitted it
in the Southwest. Further legislation extended the congressional role in
regulating slavery in the territories. The Supreme Court in theory negated much
of this legislation by ruling in the Dred Scott case that the Constitution did
not allow Congress to interfere with southern property rights. However, as
Fehrenbacher and McAfee argue, western territories were unlikely to become
slave states since they would have to enact slave codes. There was no reason to
believe that this would occur. Thus, the southern states feared the ultimate
prohibition of slavery as additional (de facto) non-slave states entered the
In chapter ten the southern secession is presented as a result of the election
of Lincoln who was expected to work towards the repeal of the fugitive slave
laws, the overturning of the Dred Scott case, the prohibition of slavery in the
District of Columbia, and the prohibition of the interstate slave trade. The
policy of two slave policies (one for the North and one for the South) was seen
as inherently unstable, especially under a Republican president. Thus the
secession and war are presented as the result of fears concerning the
dismantling of federal policy towards slavery rather than the desire for states
With the end of the war, and the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth
Amendments, there was a movement toward the removal of the vestiges of slavery,
yet Black Codes were enacted throughout the South limiting the freedom of black
Americans. Congress retreated from overseeing the welfare of the freed slaves
and the Republicans lost power at the national level and in the South, thus
effectively halting the overthrow of the slave republic. The Supreme Court in
1883, with its decision in the Civil Rights Cases, further limited the role of
the federal government in the arena of civil rights. The Constitution or its
interpretation or its enforcement remained ambiguous on the issue of civil
What makes Fehrenbacher’s argument especially persuasive are the many
documented instances in which Congress had to choose whether or not to include
antislavery language in treaties and laws. While some of these occurred prior
to the ratification of the Constitution others occurred later. If the
Constitution mandated slavery there would have been no point in debating the
inclusion of this language.
Donald F. Schaefer has published numerous articles on the Southern economy in
journals including Explorations in Economic History, the Journal of
Economic History, the Southern Economic Journal, and the American
|Subject(s):||Servitude and Slavery|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||19th Century|