Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Just Finished Reading

It sounds logical enough. If Congress had the authority to end the African slave trade in the Constitution, then shouldn't it have the power to abolish the domestic interstate slave trade in America? That is exactly what many opponents of the institution believed and attempted to do, and it is also what those that supported the system tried to fight.

In Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War, author David L. Lightner examines the long and bumpy road to end slavery by the abolition of the domestic slave trade in the antebellum years.

When Congress finally stopped the African slave trade with a 20 year continuance after the Constitution was written, they probably didn't figure that calls would be made to also end the selling of slaves on the continent from one state to another. But, as the nation expanded westward, it did so both in the North and the South. In the South, of course, it was believed slaves were needed for labor to first tame the wilderness of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, and then for the cultivation of agricultural products that brought untold wealth, and thus power, to that section's planters. Slaves not only moved West with their migrating masters, they also moved via slave marketers. Purchased in the Upper South states, mainly Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky - who had developed surplus slave populations - these laborers were floated on steamboats and flatboats down rivers, along the Eastern seaboard coast and also cross-country in coffles to major trading centers such as Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans.

To cut to the chase, Lightner contends in Slavery and the Commerce Power that antislavery proponents' agitation to end the interstate slave trade added to the South's fears of the further curtailment of the expansion of slavery. Combined with the rise of the Republican Party, which was dedicated to non-extension of slavery into the Western territories, the call for the end of the domestic slave trade contributed to the secession of the initial seven Southern states.

To make this claim Lightner provides a wealth of evidence. For a time this issue garnered significant debate in the nation's halls of Congress. Lightner makes good use of the congressional record as well as private correspondence of numerous legislators. And, naturally the issue was also argued in newspapers, both North and South, as well as in court cases too.

The rise of an antislavery political party, the Liberty Party, brought disagreement over the overall effectiveness of arguing the abolition of the interstate slave trade, and thus, in the 1840s, this particular strategy against slavery waned. But, it was revived by an unexpected avenue, a novel; Uncle Tom's Cabin. The portrayal of slave traders and the slave trade in widely read book, combined with the politics of Kansas/ Nebraska, and then Dred Scott, turned up the heat in sectional frictions.

Slavery and the Commerce Power is an insightful read. It sheds light on a under-examined area of contention between the North and South, which ultimately helped bring about the Civil War. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.

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