ONLY DAYS BEFORE Don Fehrenbacher died, he wrote me of his plans to finish his book, The Slaveholding Republic, a project he had been working on for many years: “After nearly five years of concentrating on other things, I am once again giving primary emphasis to work on my book about the federal government and slavery.” This news came in the form of a handwritten Christmas note. When I heard of his death, I left the card with its message on my windowsill, in direct eyesight above my computer, the place of my work hours. It remains there as of this writing. Many months after his death, when the task of finishing the manuscript was given to me by Virginia Fehrenbacher, the card took on new meaning—a daily reminder to complete this last effort of a fondly remembered former mentor and great historian.
The thesis that he had carefully developed in the uncompleted work was straightforward: The framers of the Constitution had not intended to make slavery a national institution supported by the Union's fundamental law. Yet, over time, the antebellum federal government adopted the position that slavery was a national institution fully protected by the Constitution. Not all Americans acquiesced in this new understanding, leading to a sectionalization of politics that produced a bloody conflagration that in turn destroyed the slaveholding republic.
Don Fehrenbacher's account begins with two separate unsuccessful claims for reimbursement of injured or lost slave property made to Congress in 1828 and 1848 as a way of introducing the issue of whether or not the Constitution was universally regarded in the antebellum period as a proslavery instrument. These examples show that before the Civil