Harvard University Press


Noted historian Sean Wilentz offers a weighty and sure-to-be controversial contribution to the extensive historiography on slavery and the original intent of the Constitution. Many historians agree the Constitution was, explicitly or implicitly, a proslavery document, ratified by elite white men many of whom had an interest in slavery as an American institution. But Wilentz contends that the Constitution was more ambivalent toward slavery—even indirectly antislavery in its language—than most scholars acknowledge. The Constitution’s limited protection of slavery could not be equated to the recognition of slavery as a permanent institution. The national governing document failed to specifically recognize property in man and thus left slavery as a creation of the individual states, an important distinction for Wilentz and one that provided the political space necessary for antislavery constitutionalism to thrive in the first half of the nineteenth century. Antislavery efforts ignited in earnest with Vermont’s 1777 ban on slavery and grew with such force that the provisions for slavery’s protection placed in the Constitution were hard won despite antislavery’s powerful presence at the 1787 convention. If antislavery rhetoric and ideology grew increasingly radical before the 1860s, so too then did proslavery assertions about the Constitution, Wilentz argues.