Book Review: The Slaveholding Republic

The Slaveholding Republic: An Account Of The United States Government’s Relationship To Slavery, by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Completed and Edited by Ward M. McAfee

In a book that was almost but not entirely finished at his death, the late and great Civil War historian Don Fehrenbacher explored an issue that was central to Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address, and indeed a matter that many contemporary students of the Civil War do not understand: why was it that Lincoln’s election seemed like such a revolutionary change? After all, to contemporary students of history, Lincoln and his associates in the early Republican party were quite timid and moderate in their antislavery convictions, considering the massive injustice and arrogance of the Deep South and their supporters in making endless threats and demands to protect their odious plantation culture. Yet this book manages to demonstrate, through its close examination of federal behavior, that the federal government had been mostly consistently favorable to slave interests regardless of whether Northerners or Southerners were in charge, and even despite the antislavery feelings of many of the people involved. Thus, in a real sense, the Republican Revolution of 1860, by promising an end to several decades of corrupting proslavery gloss onto the meaning of the Constitution and a restoration of the original antislavery principles of the American founding, was something that insecure Southerners aware of the looming demographic and electoral realities of the rise of the North, simply could not accept without a fight.

This book seeks to explore how a nation explicitly founded on freedom as a divine right and not merely as a result of generous political authorities became for several decades a leading voice against freedom and liberty regarding slavery. This analysis is done in a well-argued and well-organized fashion, taking advantage of meticulous research over such arcane matters as trade treaties and the arguments of Supreme Court justices. The book as a whole is divided both chronologically and thematically, beginning with an introduction to the subject, continuing on to an examination of the state of slavery at the founding of the American Republic, then turning to the presence of slavery in the District of Columbia as well as in America’s foreign relations, especially given American involvement in the slave trade into Brazil and Cuba. This naturally follows into a discussion of the African Slave trade (in two chapters, divided by 1842, the time of the Amistad trial and the Treaty of Washington) and then a discussion of the Fugitive Slave problem, divided by the passage of the immensely troublesome Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Following this comes a discussion of slavery in the federal territories and a discussion of the rise of the Republican party, followed by a conclusion. As a whole, the book is well-argued and it makes a suitable final work for a scholar whose writings on slavery and the American Republic have been profound and immensely worthwhile.

One thing this book manages to succeed at is demonstrating the many tangled and tortured contradictions faced by the United States between the antislavery sentiments of our founding and the proslavery reality of federal behavior during the early Republic. On the one hand, the United States was founded with principles that demanded freedom and equality of basic fundamental rights as a moral requirement. Yet neither at the time of America’s independence, nor for long afterward, nor some would argue even now, was America able to live up to those ideals. Slavery was one of the main issues (though far from the only one) that demonstrated the gap between rhetoric and reality. Historical misunderstandings, an asymmetry between diffuse opposition to slavery among more numerous Northerners and a commitment to proslavery positions among more united Southerners, and the steady increase of federal power along with the perceived duty to use that power to defend the property rights of corrupt kidnappers and slaveowners turned what had been founded as a Republic of liberty into a slaveholding republic. When an electoral majority sought to overturn that drift and place the United States in a position more congruent with its founding ideals, the result was a brutal Civil War. This book gives a thoughtful examination of how it happened, with excellent research, managing to capture both sides of the dialectic between North and South.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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