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The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery Oxford University Press USA Don E. Fehrenbacher

12th December 2012 History Books 12 Comments

William Lloyd Garrison argued–and many leading historians have since agreed–that the Constitution of the United States was a proslavery document. Garrison called it “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.” But in The Slaveholding Republic, one of America’s most eminent historians, Don E. Fehrenbacher, argues against this claim, in a wide-ranging, landmark history that stretches from the Continental Congress to the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Fehrenbacher ranges from sharp-eyed analyses of the deal-making behind the “proslavery clauses” of the constitution, to colorful accounts of partisan debates in Congress and heated confrontations with Great Britain (for instance, over slaves taken off American ships and freed in British ports). He shows us that the Constitution itself was more or less neutral on the issue of slavery and that, in the antebellum period, the idea that the Constitution protected slavery was hotly debated (many Northerners would concede only that slavery was protected by state law, not by federal law). Nevertheless, he also reveals that US policy–whether in foreign courts, on the high seas, in federal territories, or even in the District of Columbia–was consistently proslavery. The book concludes with a brilliant portrait of Lincoln. Fehrenbacher makes clear why Lincoln’s election was such a shock to the South and shows how Lincoln’s approach to emancipation, which seems exceedingly cautious by modern standards, quickly evolved into a “Republican revolution” that ended the anomaly of the United States as a “slaveholding republic.”
The last and perhaps most important book by a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, The Slaveholding Republic illuminates one of the most enduring issues in our nation’s history.

Was the Constitution, one of our nation’s most revered documents, designed to provide for the protection of slavery, the country’s greatest disgrace? This study, begun by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Fehrenbacher (The Dred Scott Case), addresses this highly significant and controversial topic. Completed after Fehrenbacher’s death by McAfee (history, California State Univ., San Bernardino), the work concludes that the Constitution’s framers did not intend to protect slavery but that, from 1789 to 1861, the federal government most often acted to protect the institution. Moreover, when Lincoln was elected in 1861, slaveholding states, no longer sure of Constitutional guarantees, seceded from the Union. This final work by a distinguished authority on the Constitution, slavery, and Lincoln reviews federal debate, compromise, and foreign policy surrounding slavery from the early republic to the 1860s. It will be read by specialists and is recommended for larger academic libraries. Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Before his death in 1997, Fehrenbacher was professor of history at Stanford and an eminent Civil War and Lincoln scholar. McAfee, a former student of Fehrenbacher’s, is a professor of history at California State University. They are dealing with a frustratingly complicated question: prior to the Civil War, did the federal government and the U.S. Constitution actively support the institution of slavery, or did they merely tolerate and protect it as the result of political compromises reached to placate the slaveholding South? Of course, for abolitionists the issue was simple–the U.S. Constitution was a sinful, proslavery document, a “covenant with death.” For these authors, however, the issue was murkier than that. Many of the Founding Fathers despised slavery, and even some southern slaveholders both hoped and expected the institution to wither away. Ante-bellum Constitutional scholars could not even agree that federal, rather than state, law protected the rights of slaveholders. The portrait of Lincoln presented here is particularly interesting, effectively contradicting the revisionist view that he was, at best, a lukewarm opponent of slavery. Jay Freeman
Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved

The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery

  • 12 responses to "The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery Oxford University Press USA Don E. Fehrenbacher"

  • Get Realz
    6:15 on December 12th, 2012
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    This book is an excellent overview of the political manifestations of American racism; specifically, it treats how politics played an overarching role in taking a relatively slavery-neutral document (U.S. Constitution) and bending it, shaping it until it became an unwitting aid, to the slave-holding south. It also shows the pernicious effect of slave-catering upon Jeffersonian ideals, the U.S. Supreme court, Lincoln and Reconstruction itself.

    The take-away? Most American school children, leave high school, ignorant and brainwashed. This book should be required reading in high school.

  • PJ Curnan
    8:06 on December 12th, 2012
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    When this book came out, in 1978, it was immediately — and justly — hailed as a triumph of historical scholarship and literature. Thoroughly researched, rigorous in its analysis, and written in calm, understated, lucid prose, THE DRED SCOTT CASE is an essential examination of perhaps the Supreme Court’s most notorious “self-inflicted wound.” Don E. Fehrenbacher had already shared a Pulitzer Prize with his late colleague David M. Potter for THE IMPENDING CRISIS, 1848-1861, a book that Potter did not live to finish and that Fehrenbacher completed and saw through the publication process. Fehrenbacher then returned to this study and won a Pulitzer Prize in his own right.

    THE DRED SCOTT CASE is meticulous in its sifting of the historical currents and processes that led to the litigation that produced the case; in its reconstruction of the actions of all parties to the case and the arguments of the lawyers; in its unearthing of the political maneuverings by the Justices and by President-elect James M. Buchanan; and in its analysis of the catastrophic effects of a Supreme Court decision that its author, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, intended to lay the slavery issue to rest once and for all.

    This is not only the definitive study of its subject; it is the finest examination ever undertaken of the history of a Supreme Court case and the history that that case made. It is a tribute to what historians can do when they are at their best.

    This book will soon be reprinted (April 2001) by Oxford University Press. It should be read in tandem with Fehrenbacher’s last book, the posthumous THE SLAVEHOLDING REPUBLIC. Its return to print is welcome news.

    – R. B. Bernstein, adjunct professor of law, New York Law School

  • Robert R Smith
    9:02 on December 12th, 2012
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    This book comprehensively covers many subjects concerning race and American government–namely: the founder’s intentions regarding slavery, the behavior of the federal government toward slavery up through the Civil War, the attitudes and behavior of Abraham Lincoln toward the institution, and the constitutional rulings that effectively ended the first civil rights movement following the formal destruction of slavery. Early in the piece, the reader might think that the book is designed to cleanse the founding period of any association with slavery, but then the bulk of the work demonstrates the multiple ways that the government under the new Constitution became devoted to serving the slaveholding interest. Lincoln is neither glorified nor vilified but rather is evaluated within the political context within which he operated. The book leaves the reader with a deeper sense of what has long been called the American dilemma. It wrestles with difficult constitutional issues but in ways that are comprehensible to the layperson. This book will long be an academic classic, but it is also one that every serious American should read, especially given the fact that the ugly legacy of the slaveholding republic is still with us.

  • John Lawrence
    14:55 on December 12th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    The book arrived on schedule. I have to disagree
    with the description of it’s condition. The seller said it
    was in “Like New” condition which to me means barely distinguishable
    from a never been purchased book sitting on a shelf at a bookstore that sells new books.
    This book did not have that appearance. The pages have mild yellowing
    and the dust jacket shows signs of worn edges. It’s not a big deal since I
    have decided to keep it but the term “Like New” seems inaccurate.

  • M'Guppy
    16:47 on December 12th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Very good analysis on salvery in USA.Recomend to anyone interested to understand the pre and post Civil War mind setting of politicians in that era,as well as our actual political game.

  • EconAnalyst
    21:02 on December 12th, 2012
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    This outstanding work of critical scholarship takes the Dred Scott case as a point of departure to examine several important issues in American history. These include both the nature and dynamics of the great sectional conflict over slavery, and the nature of juidicial power in our system of government. Fehrenbacher provides careful history and analysis of the Dred Scott case itself, it significance in its own time, and the possible role of this case in the history of Supreme Court power. Fehrenbacher’s reconstruction of the case and the associated political events is remarkably erudite; informed by the highest level of critical intelligence. He dispells a number of myths related to the case and his analyses of contemporary politics and legal history are equally astute. This book is exceptionally well written. Even when exploring apparently obscure details of 19th century juidicial and political history, Fehrenbacher’s writing is always lucid, and at times, elegant.

  • Gaurav
    0:20 on December 13th, 2012
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    There is little that I can add to what has already been written. Fehrenbacher is clear, thoughtful, and comprehensive.

  • Mike Slight
    2:00 on December 13th, 2012
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    Dred Scott Case by Don Fehrenbacher proves to be a definitive account of this controversial Supreme Court case that had far reaching consequences then the fate of one black slave wishing to be free. The book is superbly researched, written and the author presented total clarity in his presentation. He clearly points out the total significance of this case in face of American history.

    This case is often overlooked as part of 1850s pre-Civil War history but the author make it clear that long term effects of this case clearly helped initiate the American Civil War. It also helped Abraham Lincoln become President and ironically speaking, discredited Robert Taney, the chief author of the Dred Scott decision so badly that Taney was totally ineffective as the Supreme Court Chief Justice during the Civil War. His rulings against Lincoln and many of his civil rights violations during the war went totally ignored and although he was always treated well, he was a total non-entity as a factor. His death was viewed with relief.

    The book gives a very insightful background on slavery and its impact on American history prior to the case. It doesn’t get into Dred Scott himself until page 210 or so. It pretty obvious that the author has excellent command of his subject matter. His insight on what influence and repercussions of this decision after the Civil War proves to be quite interesting. I was bit surprised how Taney’s reputation have survived so well despite of his decision that the author clearly shown to be crude, shallow and highly biased. The author have clearly shown that Taney did not behaved as a Supreme Court Chief Justice in this case but as a pro-southerner who wishes to nationalized slavery throughout the land as a mean to end this debate once and for all.

    I would regard this to be one of the mandatory reading material that any reader must tackled if he or she wants to advance their knowledge of the Civil War and its issues.

  • Keating Willcox
    17:34 on December 13th, 2012
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    This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It might seem that a 700 page book (600 pages of text; 100 pages of notes) on a 19th century court case might be the epitome of exceedingly dry material suited only for particularly motivated graduate students. But I found this book captivating. What came through in every paragraph was the work of a skilled and judicious historian sleuthing his way to an understanding of the background and ramifications of the enormously important Dred Scott decision. Not one page in this book read like the work of an uninspired academic sawing his way through a pile of research notes.

    Fehrenbacher focuses on the political, legal and constitutional aspects of the Dred Scott case. He explores the background and developments, from the arrival of the first slaves in the colonies in 1619 through the bitter political battles of the 1850s. His discussion of legal developments is particularly interesting because this is one area where the reader encounters the concrete complications and conflicts between various state and federal laws affecting slaves and slave owners. He also shows how legal developments and constitutional theories were affected by the increasingly acrimonious political battles over the rights of slaveholders. His analysis of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion was particularly impressive. Finally, his discussion of the immediate and longer term impact of the Dred Scott decision was fascinating. When I finished the book, I was disappointed that he hadn’t carried the thoughts in the last chapter further (even though it was clear he had chosen a good stopping point for his analysis). I was also tempted to go back to the beginning and re-read the book immediately! It is so rich, and there’s so much of importance to understand. (Instead, I started in on Fehrenbacher’s more recent book, The Slaveholding Republic.)

    One of the strengths of the book is Fehrenbacher’s attention to the relevants facts and texts. His text never reads like a cut-and-paste compilation of other authors’ conclusions. Throughout, Fehrenbacher was doing his own thinking – and he came through as quite skilled in asking good questions, identifying all the relevant facts, weighing the possible meanings and interpretations, and arriving at fair conclusions. (Whatever the topic, it’s always a pleasure to read the work of someone who works as Fehrenbacher did in this book.)

    I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in American legal or constitutional history, in the events that lead to the Civil War, or in race relations in America.

  • Zenobia Yuki
    2:37 on December 14th, 2012
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    One of the first books about the US Civil War I’ve read was Don Fehrenbacher’s The Dred Scot Case. That book, among my favourite all time history books, made it all but certain that I would eventually seek more of his works.

    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.

  • Shannon Weiss
    2:56 on December 14th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I read the abridged edition of 1981, titled Slavery, Law and Politics. I can only echo what the other reviwers have said. It’s about a court opinion but it is anything but dry. You learn much about the law and politics of slavery, from the founding of the nation forward. You learn about the Dred Scott case itself, including the legal maneuverings in the lower courts. The author’s analysis of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion for the Court is one of the best single chapters I have read in a history book in a long time. The author is learned but the prose is engaging–elegant, even. You feel you are in the company of a wise teacher, who is not trying to impress you but simply to impart his considerable knowledge without ego on a topic that turns out to be an excellent prism through which to view an important swath of our history. Read it!

  • escortistanbul
    5:17 on December 14th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Fehrenbacher begins his account of the federal government’s relation to slavery with a plain thesis: that the constitution was not intended to really protect slavery, that it was to be neutral on the subject and leave any regulation of slavery to the states. Fehrenbacher starts from this point and explores the relationship in a number of contexts including the national capital, the slave trade, and foreign relations (the most interesting chapter of this work). Throughout the work he demonstrates how the southern interest in slavery dominated the federal government in practically every aspect, even in administrations of presidents who were morally opposed to slavery (J.Q. Adams). This dominance of the slavery interest pre-1860 is used to explain the knee jerk hostility that the South had to the Republican party. The fairly benign opposition that the Republicans had to expansion of slavery was blown up by southerners who viewed any opposition to slavery, however minor, was seen as a radical attack on the Constitution. Fehrenbacher argues that essentially this reaction based on a fundmental error in understanding the Republican party was one of the major reasons for southern succession. I stronly recommend this book for any interested in the history of slavery or the early federal government.

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