An iconoclastic figure in the study of American History, Gary Nash, who is Director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, writes from a position of authority as he questions the history that many of us were taught during our primary and secondary educations. In Race and Revolution, Nash turns his keen vision toward the matter of slavery at the time our country was founded. A collection of essays based upon his series of Merrill Jensen Lectures in Constitutional Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Race and Revolution is an indictment of our country's, primarily northern, founders as they hemmed and hawed and, ultimately, declined the opportunity to create a true, free, racially diverse republic.
Rather than focusing on the issue of slavery at its post-independence height, during the antebellum period in the South, Race and Revolution examines the issues surrounding slavery during the nascent period of the United States as the founders were struggling to craft the Constitution. Typically bypassed in non-collegiate level classrooms, Nash hones in on the opportunity that our founders had to constitutionally prohibit slavery. A number of factors, which could have led to the eradication of slavery, were in alignment during this time period. In the late 1700s, sentiment against slavery had reached an apex. Also, in the post-revolutionary years, white people were reaching the conclusion that slavery itself, rather than racial inferiority, was responsible for the poor health and physical condition of many slaves. Secession of Southern States was relatively unlikely if slavery were abolished, and former slave-owners could be given restitution in the form of land in the as-yet-uncolonized territories west of the Appalachians (Nash, 1990). Despite writing about the self-evident truth of all men being created equal in 1776, a decade or so later, the founders failed to exploit the then-current weaknesses in the institution of slavery and, thus, create a true republic.
In Nash's examination of the reasons for the failure of the founders to end slavery, he also looks at the economic issues surrounding the abolition of slavery. The south, for example, was extremely reliant on slaves for its agriculture-based economy. Without the cheap labor of the slaves, the economic calculus of the South would no longer work. Another issue was the compensation of slave owners for their loss of "property," as slaves were considered in the eighteenth century. As eventually set down in the Constitution, the founders were averse to the idea of governmental taking of property without just compensation.
The drum most frequently beaten by Nash, though, was the North's failure to exploit the sentiments and circumstances of the time to end slavery. The Declaration of Independence that we had just delivered to Great Britain boldly declared,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The hypocrisy of this language, over which our nation had just fought a war, in light of the ongoing institution of slavery must have been apparent to the founders -- Northern and Southern, alike. Nash certainly believed it was.
Nash ends his series of essays with a discussion of roles played by African-Americans in the ending slavery -- both their own individual slavery and the institution, in general. He referred to the post-Revolutionary era as "the largest slave uprising in our history" (Nash, 1990, p. 57). During the Revolutionary War, slaves surrendered to the British to effect their freedom, and after the war, many fled to the uncolonized West. Others joined the military in exchange for post-service emancipation while many simply became a part of the formal abolitionist movement.
Free men and former slaves were creating autonomous institutions. The establishment of social support systems, such as churches and other types of community structures, to serve African-Americans, from which to lobby an abolitionist agenda had an impact on national leaders -- at least emotionally, if not in the sense of actually effecting change. Nash (1990) describes this as a great and tragic paradox: as free blacks removed themselves from white paternalist influence by founding and sustaining their own institutions that were dedicated to guiding the religious, moral and educational lives of their people, white charges about insurmountable black inferiority intensified. (p. 73)
As Nash (1990) tells us from the beginning of the book, it is only relatively recently that that historians have re-discovered the true extent of anti-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary period. The result of this is two centuries of students who believed that the founding fathers were unaware of the issue, and that the debate over slavery did not have a part in the shaping of our country until the Antebellum and Civil War eras.
Nash relates that other historians have posited that the fragile nature of the post-revolutionary union led to the Northern leaders' equivocations about slavery. Fear of a split from the union by Georgia and the Carolinas may also have been a factor. Nash (1990), however, questions whether these historians have "accurately singled out the fragile political union of northern and southern states as the key stumbling block to the abolition of slavery" (p. 25).
Economic factors and political power certainly must have played a role in the continuation of slavery as an American institution. The political tension between the regions was already apparent during the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, as delegates from each state in the new union debated the manner in which to form an electoral system, proponents of slavery wanted slaves (though they could not vote) to be counted for purposes of representation. States that opposed slavery, on the other hand, wanted only "free" men to be counted for representation purposes, but wanted to count slaves for taxation reasons.
Among other plans put forth, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania suggested 'a tax for paying for all the Negroes in the U. States' rather than to 'saddle posterity' with a Constitution that legitimated slavery. (Nash, 1990, p. 36)
While this would have cost the United States nearly 90 million dollars, there was sufficient wealth in the lands of the West to have covered the cost of setting free the slaves (Nash, 1990). Obviously, Morris' plan was never adopted.
Eventually, after the failure of several other attempts at agreement, the three-fifths compromise was proposed. The three-fifths compromise was codified in the Constitution at Article 1, section 2. The third paragraph of that section reads, in pertinent part:
Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the Several states… according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.
The insertion of this clause in the Constitution addressed the dispute with nods to the northern concerns about slaves being taxed and the concerns of southern states about being represented. The antebellum net effect of the compromise, however, was to give southern states extremely disproportionate power in Congress, because in spite of their inability to vote, the number of slaves counted toward the number of representatives that slave states were able to send to Congress. The Three-Fifths Compromise thus led to nearly seventy-five years of political tension between slave states and non-slave states.
In certain areas of Virginia, for instance, the slave population actually outnumbered the non-slave population, and was growing rapidly -- in spite of Virginia's 1774 ban on the importation of new slaves (Nash, 1990). In fact, the first federal census, taken in 1790, just three years after the Constitutional Convention, showed that
Nearly 293,000 slaves resided in Virginia -- roughly a 250% increase since 1755 and an increase of more than a third since 1782, despite the flight of thousands of slaves to the British during the Revolution, the migration of many freed slaves to the North after the war, and the sale of a large number of slaves southward in the 1780s. (Nash, 1990, p. 43-44)
The slave population represented enormous political power for the South. Further to the Southern advantage, of course, was that while the slaves would count toward their numbers in Congress, African-Americans would have no voice or political power to affect the decisions that took place in the Capitol.
The political tension between the regions was further exacerbated by economic disparity. As the North became more industrialized, it relied less and less on the need for human labor. On the other hand, cotton was an emerging industry in the south. The invention of the cotton gin had made cotton an immensely profitable industry, but also greatly increased the need for manual human labor. A cotton grower's ability to remain profitable depended upon the relatively inexpensive labor of slaves.
The use of slave labor was ingrained in the economic and moral fabric of the region. Indeed, the very reason the Southern colonies were settled was strictly capitalistic in nature. Jamestown, Virginia, was…