The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery

By Don E. Fehrenbacher; Ward M. McAfee | Go to book overview
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2
SLAVERY AND THE
FOUNDING OF THE REPUBLIC

OF THE TWO documents that formally established the United States as a separate nation, one, the Declaration of Independence, made no direct reference to African slavery but embraced principles plainly inimical to the institution; whereas the other, the treaty of peace with Great Britain, contained a clause dealing explicitly and perfunctorily with slaves as a form of property. This inconsistency manifested at the founding was eloquently expressive of the degree to which the reach of American ideals habitually extended beyond the grasp of day-to-day practice where slavery was concerned.

Slavery at the time of the Revolution was firmly established in the five southernmost states from Maryland to Georgia, and it was more than a trivial presence in most of the others. Slaves numbered about half a million in 1780, constituting a little more than one-sixth of the national population. In the South, two persons out of every five were slaves. As a racial caste system, slavery was the most distinctive element in the southern social order. The slave production of staple crops dominated southern agriculture and eminently suited the development of a national market economy. Furthermore, slaveholders played such a vigorous part in the expansion of the American frontier that their slaves already comprised about one-sixth of the population living in Kentucky and the Southwest. Even before the great stimulus resulting from the growth of the cotton industry, slavery was by several standards a flourishing institution, integral to the prosperity of the nation. But at the same time, slavery was an institution under severe scrutiny, both as a matter of conscience and as a

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