Race and revolution Essay

Nash taught history at the University of California, Los Angeles where he is now a professor emeritus. He held several other posts during his distinguished career including dean of Inter-College Curricular Development. In addition, he led the design of National History Standards and made other important educational contributions. Race and Revolution is developed from the Merrell Jensen Lectures in Constitutional Studies lectures presented in September 1988 at the University of Wisconsin. The book’s target audience is undergraduate and graduate students, according to the information provided on the cover.  However, given the book’s readability and clarity of argument, it could also be used by high school students. Nash uses primary material to support the thesis set out in the book. His footnotes add some information but are mainly bibliographical. His methodology is to first argue his thesis across three chapters, then to allow readers to formulate an opinion on this by reading documents (three chapters) contemporary to the period under discussion.  This is the period before, during and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He develops his thesis in key stages.

Nash challenges several commonly accepted versions of how the issue of slavery was dealt with at the Constitutional Convention, especially the view that the Constitution failed to ban slavery because of the threat from pro-slavery Southern states that they would abandon the Union if slavery were abolished. This popular view tends to blame Southerners for forcing Northerners to compromise over slavery, suggesting that the Northerners had no choice but to comply with the South. Nash says that many American historians try to minimize conflict, arguing that the founding fathers” were powerless to act on the issue of slavery “without causing conflict (p 5) which they wanted to avoid. Having developed his argument across two chapters that it was actually the Northerners who failed to put their anti-slavery principles into practice, which he says would have been possible despite Southern opposition, since in his view they Southern states would not have abandoned the union, he adds a third chapter. In this chapter, which does not appear to be integral to the overall thesis of the book, Nash argues that after the Constitution took effect, it was African-Americans who kept the revolutionary struggle for freedom alive rather than whites. African-Americans, he says, did this by creating their own institutions, especially churches. Nash describes what he calls the “African-American revolutionary experience” as a neglected area of research (p 57).

Crucial to Nash’s thesis is his argument that anti-slavery sentiment was so widespread and strong in the North that had Northerners remained true to their convictions, they could have pushed abolition through at the Constitutional Convention. The costly Civil War would have been avoided. Nash cites numerous clerics and politicians who realized that the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of human equality made slavery abhorrent. Many believed that slavery was a moral stain on the Union, which would not prosper until this was removed. He points out the all the Northern states had already abolished slavery, although this was on an incremental basis.  Yet he also points out that some of those who were vocal in criticizing slavery continued to own slaves, which might suggest a flaw in his argument that anti-slavery sentiment was not only running high but strong enough to win the day at the Convention. Given the next stage in his argument, that when faced with two problems, the Northerners backed down, might their statements have been empty rhetoric not the expression of deeply held convictions? Nash’s argument rests on establishing that anti-slavery sentiment was both high and strong and he gives us primary documents to support this claim.  The documents in support of chapter one show that many did support emancipation but do they demonstrate that there was sufficient support to persuade a majority of delegates at the Convention? Nash does not actually show that a majority could really have been mustered against slavery, although his contention that there was enough support certainly challenges the standard view. Nash’s thesis, though, that it would have been possible for the delegates to ban slavery, almost certainly incrementally, rests on the next plank in his thesis.  This plank is that while the Southern states threatened non-ratification, they would not have carried out their threat to abandon the union. Nash argues that they needed a strong federal government and a strong military even more than most other states because they were especially vulnerable to attack (p 27). If the Northerners knew that the Southern states would not carry out their threat, would they not have voted for abolition, given that anti-slavery sentiment was running high? Nash says “no” because, when they had the chance, self-interest took priority over their convictions.

Two issues, says Nash, could not be resolved to satisfy Northern (and for that matter Southern) interests.  The main reasons why the North had only banned slavery incrementally were economic and social. First, no one at the time “imagined that those who held property in human beings could be deprived of it without compensation” (p 36). Already, the new republic had a huge debt from the Revolutionary war. In addition to this national debt, the cost of reimbursing slave owners would have amounted, says Nash, to approximately 90 millions dollars, a huge sum (p 36).  Apparently, no one could solve the problem. Nash himself appears to favor a sale of what he describes as “federal lands” to the West against the cost of compensating slave owners.  This would represent the type of national solution to the slavery problem that he insists was always necessary. However, would sale of land belonging to America’s indigenous people have been morally right? One alternative was to raise money by taxation, which nobody wanted as a solution. Second, abolitionists deplored slavery as immoral but many looked upon Africans as inferior and did not want to share society with them. Thomas Jefferson wrote about “equality” and deplored slavery but saw blacks as inferior (p 16). Many who wanted to see slavery abolished also saw no place for blacks in America. Some spoke about repatriation to Africa, wanting to be quit of blacks as well as of the moral stain of slavery (p 43). The real failure, says Nash, was that supporters of abolition had no vision of a “biracial society” (p 35). This is why those blacks who were free in post-Revolutionary America found no welcome in new republic. Many had joined the British fighting against slave owners in what Nash describes as the biggest slave revolt in US history (p 57). Those who did identify with the rebels against the British hoped that the Declaration of Independence would result in true liberty and equality (p 59). This did not happen and the charge that blacks were inferior, incapable of assuming an equal place in society, led to repression and denial of civil rights over many decades. As blacks withdrew into their own institutions, developing leadership and self-determination as a separate “people” “white charges about insurmountable black inferiority intensified” (p 73).

Crucial to Nash’s argument is that the Foster report, which would have banned slavery, had a real chance to pass at the Convention. Instead, he says, faced with the problem of paying for emancipation and of dealing with the social issue, Northern support for abolition simply evaporated. He wrote, “New England and mid-Atlantic Congressmen began to abandon their anti-slavery commitment” as Southerners “harangued and filibustered against the report” (p 41).  It is here that Nash’s thesis confronts the conventional view that the Northern states wanted above all to avoid conflict and to keep the union intact against the Southern threat of secession. Nash argues that in private Southerners admitted that they could not “make it on” their “own” and that the loss of two states would not have “deeply damaged” the others. He asks, “Would the rest of the states have been greatly damaged at the loss of a paltry five percent of the population?” (29).  He suggests that economically, loss of the South would have had little impact on revenues. However, he does not consider the philosophical or even the sentimental aspects of keeping the 13 colonies within the “more perfect union”. Already, the idea of expanding to the West was driven at least in part by ideology, extending freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness across the whole Continent. To start the process by losing territory made no sense at all. This is not to say that some people were unwilling to accept a smaller union. Approval of the Constitution would be triggered by nine states’ ratification. One document by Army, Maynard and Field argued that even if states refused to ratify an anti-slavery Constitution they would in the end “be compelled” to accept it; “all commerce with them would be interdicted; and their property would be seized in every port they should enter” (p 137). Such action would have compromised the principles of a voluntary union founded to fight British tyranny! Was the union founded on principles of liberty or would it also be a coercive power, tyrannizing those who dissented?

How convincing is Nash’s argument?  If anti-slavery sentiment was riding high and poised to achieve victory, and if the South would not actually have abandoned the Union, why did the Convention fail to abolish slavery? Nash’s argument is that the Northerners succumbed to self-interest, which is why, he says, no scheme to end slavery was proposed in the immediate aftermath of the Constitutional Convention. Rather, he says, compromise built recognition of slavery into the Constitution through such clauses as that which counted slaves towards representation in Congress and mandated the return of a fugitive. While the Constitution does not explicitly mention slavery, everyone knew that these clauses referred to slaves. Congress also voted as soon as it was able to do so to take no action on slavery for the next twenty years (p 41). Nash argues that it was economic self-interest, compounded by the social problem that led to compromise. The South argued that they needed slaves to survive economically.  The North feared they would suffer from the cost of compensation, and traded “the power to regulate commerce by simple majority in Congress” for “acquiescence to the South on the slave-trade and fugitive issues” (p 42). However, does Nash convincingly establish that it was actually economic interest not the desire to maintain the Union that led to compromise? There were other compromises made at the Convention, famously between Federalists and anti-Federalists. The former agreed to a Bill of Rights to satisfy the latter.  The latter agreed to create a Senate assured by the former that separation of powers and checks and balances would prevent the Senate from accruing too much power. Inclusion of the Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights satisfied the Anti-federalists, to some degree, about the existence of a standing army. Anti-federalists preferred to rely on state militia, called up when needed. They only conceded to what was initially a modest standing army to defend the Western borders.  Does this undermine Nash’s argument that the South would not have abandoned the Union because they needed protection? Generally, the anti-federalists drew their support from the South and initially opposed both giving the federal government tax raising powers and a standing army.  Yet Nash write, “no states were more in need of the military power of a federal government” than the Southern states “in the late 1780s” (p 27) and were in no position to “hector the other states into believing that they would abandon the union if abolition of the slave trade or a general emancipation were contemplated” (p 29). Nash implies that while the South did indeed hector and cajole at the Convention, it was not their threat to withdraw but the Northerner’s unwillingness to sacrifice their self-interest for their moral principles. Thus, despite all the pamphlets and high moral statements “northern leaders – political, academic, and clerical – consistently ducked the issue that the Revolutionary leaders had insisted must be solved if the nation was to be united and true to the sacred texts enunciated during its birth” (p 50). The South cannot, he says, be blamed for failure to resolve the slavery issue, “in truth the North was equally blameworthy. ”

Might the North have genuinely believed that maintaining the Union took priority and that, since no one at the time contemplated anything other than a gradual process of abolition, time was not ripe for a national and immediate solution?  The ten Northern states had all passed laws that gradually abolished slavery.  Slavery on the other hand continued growing in the South but did this necessarily, as Nash argues, “require a national solution” (p 50). The Federalist-anti-Federalist clash was also about states’ rights versus the federal center. Given that ten states had taken steps to end slavery, supporters of states’ rights might argue that over time the Southern states would also end slavery. They could not know that the South would cling tenaciously to slavery until a Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment finally ended slavery, indeed imposing a national solution. Yet the fact that the Southern states did not abandon slavery and actually seceded in 1861 both to assert their “states’ rights” and to keep slaves, indicates that they may well have seceded in 1787. Most Southerners were anti-federalists, opposed to a strong, powerful federal government or a peacetime army, so Nash’s theory that they wanted and needed this sounds odd? Might the Northern abolitionists have faced a real moral dilemma between their anti-slavery and their unionist principles? Did they desert the abolitionist cause because they thought it would cost too much or because they sincerely wanted to keep all thirteen states united? Disunity would effectively undermining the Declaration if Independences statement that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES” with the ’power to levy War, conclude peace, contract alliances” and to do all “other acts … that independent states may of right do.”  The Declaration did not claim these rights for one or two or for nine but for all thirteen of the former colonies.

Given Nash’s description of rampant white racism, was anti-slavery sentiment actually so strong that it would have swung the debate at Philadelphia? His argument that, when the crucial moment came, Northerners compromised, walking away from their anti-slavery principles in favor of economic self-interest, rather suggests that their anti-slavery sentiment was shallow, more rhetoric than deep conviction. As suggested, he does not weigh the depth of anti-slavery sentiment against that if unionist convictions (the desire to preserve the Union).  His argument that Northerners failed to rekindle their abolitionist commitment in the twenty years or so that followed the Constitution’s ratification could also suggest that anti-slavery sentiment was not very deep (p 35). Or, were they waiting while other urgent issues were dealt with in the infant republic? Second, could the North have pushed abolition through without losing the South? Would loss of the South have been as tolerable as Nash suggests?  When the South did secede, a bloody war followed to reunify the Union. He suggests that this war could have been avoided if the Convention had not “ducked the issue” (p 50). Perhaps, as suggested above, coercive action would have taken place earlier, itself contrary to the Spirit and ideals of the Declaration of Independence, which condemns the type of actions listed by Army, Maynard and Field. Is Nash right to claim that the North is equally blameworthy or is conventional wisdom right to say that the Convention could not resolve the slavery issue without conflict? The book, which opens up new avenues for discussion with supporting documentation, shows that historians always have an agenda. Desire to minimize conflict, to justify the North’s role or to vilify the South’s role all represent different interests and representations of America’s history. A few would even argue that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document, in which case the Northerners did not make any compromise after all. Whether a reader agrees or disagrees with Nash’s thesis, it is thought provoking and clearly articulated. Documentation gives readers access to primary material, although Nash selected what supported his thesis, so readers may need to look elsewhere for material that challenges this.


Nash, G. B. (1990). Race and revolution. The Merrill Jensen lectures in constitutional studies. Madison: Madison House.


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