Federalism Against the Slave Power

The New York Times Magazine recently commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of the first ship that carried enslaved people to British America. The magazine concluded, “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” One feature of American life profoundly shaped by slavery has been organized protest. As slaveholders expanded both territorial and political power during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so did organizations committed to emancipating those held in bondage. Stanley Harrold’s American Abolitionism studies how abolitionists worked within the American system of government to end the legal practice of slavery. He has written an important political history of abolitionism that shows how democratic protest can lead to vital reforms within the confines of the Constitution. Representative government can enact fundamental change.

Many historians have characterized antislavery leaders as apolitical, but Harrold portrays American abolitionists as savvy political operators who understood how to petition, lobby, and manipulate the levers of representative government to achieve their aim of universal freedom. Beginning in the colonial period and ending the with the dissolution of the American Antislavery Society in 1870, Harrold writes, “Abolitionist political efforts, stretching over 150 years from the colonial era through the early national period into the Civil War made universal legal emancipation possible at the war’s conclusion. This would not have happened had abolitionists confined their efforts only to changing popular opinion through moral suasion or independent engagement in electoral politics.”

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