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Jul 8, 2004 7:22 pm


Was the Constitution a Good Thing?



Brad DeLong, Tyler Cowen, and others are discussing whether the American Revolution was a good thing. On the minus side, DeLong has made a strong case that staying with the Empire might have meant an earlier end to slavery and perhaps avoided World War I. Tyler agrees but persuasively responds that the Revolution was, on balance, a good thing because it fostered broader ideas of human liberty.

Since we are playing the counterfactual game, why not raise a related question: was the American Constitution was a good thing? For the moment, let's limit the discussion to the issue of slavery. A compelling argument can be made that the future of that institution would have been much less secure under a United States governed by The Articles of Confederation .

The lack of a Fugitive Slave Clause in the Articles, for example, deprived the pro-slavery states of a powerful weapon and subsidy. In a more general sense, the weaker federal government of the Articles would have found it much more difficult to protect and spread slavery through the incorporation of new territories such as the Louisiana Purchase and Texas.

I plan to more fully ponder possible advantages and disadvantages of our first constitution on July 12, the anniversary of when the Articles of Confederation was first proposed in 1777.

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David T. Beito - 7/9/2004

While this is a complicated issue, let me briefly say a few things. I would argue that while technology was important (especially the invention of the cotton gin), it is greatly overrated. Both sides (accurately in view) regarded the political aspects of slavery as tremendously important.

The South often stressed the importance of a pro-slavery territorial buffer zone as important to socialize the enforcement costs by detering runaways. While other facts, such as climate and technology play a role, I think it is significant that slavery was especially weak and often on the decline the border states (especially Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) where slaves could flee at relatively low cost to themselves and the enforcement costs for masters were higher.

An excellent and highly nuanced book in this regard is William Freehling, Road to Disunion. Freehling argues that because of the high costs of the institution in the border states, masters were selling their slaves down the river at an ever increasing rate. The end result could well have been emancipation in the border states and an isolated, and heavily black, deeper South. Interestingly Freehling finds that pro-slave support for a tough Fugitive Slave Act was especially enthusiastic in the upper South where runaways were a critically important problem.

I really think you'd enjoy reading Freehling. He has a sense of drama and solid grasp on the Southern internal divisions.


Pat Lynch - 7/8/2004

David, but wasn't the problem with the continued existence of slavery not so much it's spread but technological advances that made it much more profitable? So were the political institutions really relevant?

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