Blogs > Liberty and Power > Was the Constitution a Good Thing?

Jul 8, 2004 3:22 pm

Was the Constitution a Good Thing?

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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?