It is perhaps the great irony of American history that the U.S. Constitution—a document which deliberately avoided interference with the institution of slavery as it already existed within each state and which even created some additional protections for slave property—would ultimately be the instrument that made it possible to abolish slavery throughout the United States. Only a few Southerners during the ratification period had foreseen (and thus feared) this eventuality, but the Constitution’s potential for influencing slavery outweighed the scant provisions that directly related to the institution. The Constitution’s latent powers to abolish slavery were by no means obvious, nor was the eventual result inevitable. Prior to the 13th Amendment, the Constitution on its face had always been either a pro-slavery or an anti-slavery document, depending on who was interpreting it. Even to this day, the clauses in the Constitution that directly address slavery are the most disturbing for Americans to confront, because the nation’s founding document—a document which we wish to revere—includes some provisions which compromise with an odious institution. These compromises have often provoked moral outrage throughout our history, and this outrage makes it difficult to examine the topic in a dispassionate and impartial way. Nevertheless, slavery and the Constitution—the way that the two subjects intersect and the clashes that proceeded from those intersections—form a complex and fascinating story that is worthy of being told well.
This course will attempt to trace the intricate and often painful history of slavery and the Constitution: how the institution of slavery influenced the Constitution and how the Constitution influenced the institution of slavery. It will begin with a broad history of slavery in the American colonies and how the institution became a matter left to the superintendence of each state. The course will dwell in particular on the clauses in the Constitution that directly relate to slavery—such as the three-fifths clause, the twenty-year compromise, and the fugitive slave clause—in order to explain why these provisions were included in the Constitution and what effect they had on the history of slavery in America. However, the course will also examine other provisions, those which were formed with little or no reference to slavery and which would ultimately serve the abolitionist or the pro-slavery cause, depending on how they were interpreted or exercised. These volatile clauses included: the power to “make all needful rules and regulations” in the territories, the guarantee of a republican form of government in the states, the power to admit new states into the union, the power to suppress insurrections, the commander-in-chief powers of the president, and the right to amend the Constitution. The course will conclude with Lincoln’s attempts to wrestle with the problem of slavery within the boundaries of the Constitution. It will show why he came to believe that the Civil War was ultimately fought to resolve the problem of slavery in this country—even if none of its combatants entered the fray with that intention.