To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
The 1830s saw a reconsideration of the institution of slavery across the South, in which the sense of slavery as an anomalous institution within a republican society gave way to the articulation of more aggressive claim of slavery as a positive good. As southern intellectuals and polemists shifted from apology for slavery to celebration of it, the sanctity of property rights both in slaves and more generally came to be interpreted as a measure of the Southern States’ success in balancing freedom and order. Alongside that shift, the importance of constitutions within the Southern imaginary grew. This chapter traces the constitutionalization of slavery that these developments gave rise to. In the first instance, slavery as an issue was “constitutionalized” through an overt association of slavery with constitutional rights. At a second level, constitutionalization proceeded in a greater attachment to extant constitutions and a call for their preservation as central objects of political life. This chapter shows how these two developments, placed together, resulted in a conflux of slavery and constitution that made defense of each imperative to the other.
This introductory chapter reflects upon the centrality of the Constitution to American political life and outlines the central themes of this book. It provides a summary of its overarching argument that the navigation of abolitionist pressure on slavery in the District of Columbia in the 1830s prompted a turn toward the concept of spirit, and particularly the spirit of 1787, within American constitutional thought. The chapter contains a plan of the subsequent chapters.
This chapter explores the ways in which the interracial immediatist abolition movement of the early 1830s fashioned a conception of abolition as the fulfillment of commitments made at the time of the Revolution but which subsequent actions had left unmet. Casting themselves as acting in parallel to the founding fathers and expressing concern for the possibility of transmitting an unfulfilled revolutionary settlement to posterity, abolitionists sought to navigate their relationship with the nation’s founding documents. Attempting to systematize this relationship, some came to argue that the Constitution ought to be interpreted in accordance with the Declaration of Independence. Others would go further and argue that the Declaration was more fundamental than the U.S. Constitution itself. Just as earlier arguments had cultivated a sense of American national identity tied to the principle of equality, these variations furthered the association of the claim that “all men are created equal” with the American sense of self and contributed to the formation of a national identity with significant ideological content.
In this concluding chapter, I consider how the development of a particular attachment to the founding has shaped constitutional development in the United States and how an alterative grounding in the constitutional thought of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson might provide intellectual resources for a renewed democratic constitutionalism in contemporary American politics.
The first session of the Twenty-fourth Congress saw the tensions over slavery in the District of Columbia erupt on the floors of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In both chambers the presentation of abolitionist petitions became a point of controversy As actors in the Senate and House groped for a path around the polarizing and consuming issue of abolition, they moved away from reliance upon the text of the constitutional document and toward a constitutional spirit – embodied in the idea of “the compact” – as a way to navigate the apparent incompatibility of Southern and Northern understandings of the Constitution’s guarantee of rights of property. This chapter traces the process of the debates within each chamber of Congress before turning to a closer analysis of the constitutional issues raised by them. The chapter outlines the manner in which the invocation of “the compact” in the debates and in Pinckney’s Report of May 1836 met the challenges of the abolitionist petitions and erected an understanding of constitutional faith that rested upon the reanimation of values deemed present in the debates of 1787–88.
Missouri’s application for statehood was immediately and universally recognized as a moment of crisis for the Union. The resolution of the crisis would come in the form of a compromise that came to structure antebellum responses to intersectional conflict over slavery until its collapse in the Civil War. But in moving toward this compromise, these congressional debates generated important components of a constitutional imaginary that would be invoked to navigate constitutional debates over slavery in the following decades. Three elements are evident in the congressional debates over Missouri’s admission that provided building blocks for future constitutional development; the notion of a chronological gap between an authoritative founding and the contemporary moment, the idea of compromise, and the deployment of a founding spirit as a basis for deriving constitutional meaning. This chapter traces the complex interactions of these elements within the Missouri debates, showing that while they failed to consolidate into a singular constitutional imaginary they provided the context within which the history discussed in the following chapters unfolded.
This chapter examines the afterlife of the Compact of 1836 in abolitionist and proslavery thought. To a significant extent abolitionists after 1836 accepted the authority of the spirit of 1787 and sought to fashion an abolitionism within that framework. One strand of such a response was represented in the Garrisonian rejection of the Constitution as a legitimate authority. A second strand challenged the characterization of that spirit as protective of slavery through a claim that the Constitution represented an attempt by antislavery founders to grapple with the reality of slavery in their historical moment. In concert with these developments, after 1836 supporters of slavery began to refine their own understanding of the role of spirit in constitutional interpretation by prioritizing the recognition of slavery as a constitutional institution. To different ends both groups would gravitate in the 1840s toward a view of the Constitution as correctly understood only with reference to the attitudes that were prevalent at the time of its creation. Thus the legacy of the compact of 1836 would be a legitimization of the constitutional authority of 1787–88.
This chapter follows the transformation of the issue of slavery in the nation’s capital into the 1830s across four sections. The first section provides the broad setting of a growing sense amongst abolitionists of the “Americanization” of slavery following the initiation of a gradual emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. Given the importance of the District for the domestic slave trade, examined in the second section, this reconceptualization was not without merit. The third section traces the ways in which immediate abolition and its reconceptualization of slavery within the District, in light of the trends discussed in the first and second sections, saw continuities but also important departures from the antislavery position on the District of Columbia in the 1820s. The final section examines the ways in which the District of Columbia grew in significance for defenders of slavery over roughly the same period.
This chapter explores the emergence of the question of abolition within the District of Columbia in the presidential campaign of 1836. Over the course of the presidential campaign, Martin Van Buren sought to hone his position on the question of abolition in the District in response to the pressures he faced from southern Whigs. From an early position that abolition in the District would be inexpedient or impolitic, Van Buren shifted by his inaugural address to the position that such action was counter to “the spirit that actuated the venerated fathers of the republic,” while through campaign materials, public meetings, and official addresses, the Democrats developed the view that abolitionist activity aimed at altering the extant inter-State settlement on slavery was counter to the “spirit of deference, conciliation and mutual forbearance” that underwrote the federal compact. This approach enabled Van Buren and the Democrats to successfully navigate the 1836 election, but it also legitimized an appeal to spirit as a method of resolving constitutional disputes that had significant longer-term effects.
A transformation of the Declaration of Independence’s symbolism in the 1820s that proved useful for those advancing claims on behalf of black Americans. In the first instance, the Declaration became more closely associated with a commitment to equality. In the second instance, the project of unifying the nation around the sacred text of the Declaration had the effect of providing a written expression of American nationalism as a value-laden concept. This chapter traces the ways in which free black writers sought to exploit both opportunities, ultimately generating an understanding of American citizenship that would inform the wider abolitionist movement of the 1830s. These efforts saw free black writers advance claims upon American citizenship with pamphlets, including David Walker’s Appeal, and the first African American owned and operated newspaper in the United States, Freedom’s Journal. Associating this understanding of the Declaration with the U.S. Constitution provided a framework for understanding the Constitution as committed to an expansive notion of the People and provided an important orientating concept for the abolitionist movement as it evolved into the 1830s.
This book argues that conflicts over slavery and abolition in the early American Republic generated a mode of constitutional interpretation that remains powerful today: the belief that the historical spirit of founding holds authority over the current moment. Simon J. Gilhooley traces how debates around the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia gave rise to the articulation of this constitutional interpretation, which constrained the radical potential of the constitutional text. To reconstruct the origins of this interpretation, Gilhooley draws on rich sources that include historical newspapers, pamphlets, and congressional debates. Examining free black activism in the North, Abolitionism in the 1830s, and the evolution of pro-slavery thought, this book shows how in navigating the existence of slavery in the District and the fundamental constitutional issue of the enslaved's personhood, Antebellum opponents of abolition came to promote an enduring but constraining constitutional imaginary.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.