Week 6/Colonial and National History Roundtable

Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

In contrasting Jack Greene’s call for historians of the early United States to pay greater attention to state and local governments as the primary political arena for most Americans during the early national period with Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic, I was immediately struck by the fact that his book is subtitled An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery – not that of “the United States’ Governments.”  I view Fehrenbacher’s formulation, despite Greene’s assertions about the lack of import afforded to the federal government during this period, as a more accurate account of the federal government’s power concerning slavery.

Fehrenbacher argues that, despite the Garrisonian abolitionist interpretation, one accepted by a significant proportion of modern historiography, that the US Constitution is fundamentally a slaveholding document, the framers intended the document to be neutral on the question of slavery – insomuch as they could be.  Rather than the letter of the constitution, it was the policies enacted and decisions made after ratification that solidified the federal government’s support and protection of slavery and transformed the United States into a slaveholding republic.  Echoing Winthrop Jordan’s argument about the appearance of slavery in North America to begin with, Fehrenbacher frequently cites a series of “unthinking decisions” with the solidification of federal government support for slavery.  These actions taken by the federal government, in regards to the slave importation, slavery in the nation’s capitol, fugitive slave laws, foreign affairs, the extension of slavery into federal territories, among other areas, established that despite the neutrality of the government’s principle organizing document, that the federal government would protect the rights of slaveholders and the institution itself.

Fehrenbacher extends this line of reasoning in describing how the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led to the secession of the southern states.  Southerners feared that Lincoln would reverse the aforementioned policies that had been established since ratification, and seceded to preserve and protect the institution of slavery.  Fehrenbacher’s argument allows for a wholesale jettisoning of any euphemistic “states-rights” arguments concerning the causes of the Civil War, and places the concern about the continuation of protections of slavery by the central government at the forefront.

Given Fehrenbacher’s description of how influential the federal government was in how and to what extent slavery functioned and spread to individual territories and states, Adam Rothman’s objection to Greene’s argument about the centrality of state and local government’s gains significant support.  Rothman’s assertion that “the fate of slavery in the early Republic was never wholly determined on the state level by local elites…the federal government delineated local elites’ room for maneuver” (274).  Rothman’s objection to Greene parallel’s Fehrenbacher’s argument about the importance of federal policy relating to slavery: “Greene’s argument that most political activity took place at the state and local levels cannot explain why American citizens argued so bitterly over the problem of slavery at the level of the nation-state” (274).  As Fehrenbacher expertly demonstrates, the federal government had a huge impact on the way state and local governments could regulate (or not) the character of slavery at levels below that of the nation.

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