Gary B Nash. 1990. Race and Revolution Essay

Gary B Nash. 1990. Race and Revolution Essay

Nash is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles where he also served as Dean of undergraduates and of Inter-College Curricular Development. He joined UCLA in 1974 with a PhD from Princeton. He has had a distinguished career as an academic historian but also led the design of National History Standards for American schools. Race and Revolution consists of three chapters and primary documentation based on lectures given in September 1988 at the University of Wisconsin, the Merrell Jensen Lectures in Constitutional Studies. The book was intended to be a discussion primer for undergraduate and graduate seminars but it can also be read and used by high school students of American history or politics. Nash sets out his argument in three chapters. These are followed by three chapters of documents, all of which represent appropriate primary material selected to support his thesis. Nash uses end of chapter footnotes mainly to reference sources. He set out to challenge the standard view that the Constitutional Convention failed to ban slavery because the pro-slavery Southern states threatened to remain outside the Union if the anti-slavery Northerners insisted on doing this. In this view, it was self-serving Southerners who prevented the Constitution from making slavery illegal. He also challenges the view of American history that seeks to minimize conflict, so that the founding fathers” could not have “done anything about slavery” even thought they “understood that it conflicted with” the “ideological assumptions” of the Revolution without causing conflict (p 5). Finally, he argues that while Northerners compromised their principles in failing to carry through with abolition, African-Americans would keep the revolutionary struggle for freedom alive through creating their own autonomous institutions, especially churches. Nash says that the African-American revolutionary experience is a neglected area of historical research. Nash’s thesis is that in the years leading up to the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, “abolitionist sentiment” was riding high and had built up enough support in the North especially to make a stand on this issue. Northern states had abolished slavery although incrementally. Slavery still existed in the ten states that had passed anti-slavery legislation but the abolition process was underway. Nash’s thesis is that when they had the opportunity to abolish slavery nationally at the Constitutional Convention, the Northerners allowed their own economic interests to take priority and “ducked the issue” (p 50).

Nash begins by developing his thesis that anti-slavery sentiment was strong and almost triumphant in the period immediately before the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Many realized that the equality and freedom of which the Declaration of Independence spoke applied to all people, regardless of color or race or creed, “For shame”, wrote Nathaniel Niles, a New England cleric, “let us either cease to enslave our fellow-men, or else let us cease to complain of those who would enslave us” (p 10). Two problems stood in the way of the abolitionist cause, which explained why the ten states chose to abolish slavery gradually. First, the problem of reimbursing slave owners, since no one at the time “imagined that those who held property in human beings could be deprived of it without compensation” (p 36) but with a huge national debt from the war, how would this be achieved? Nash estimates that the cost would have amounted to 90 million dollars (p 36). After describing various schemes, Nash suggests that the one that might have solved the problem was the sale of “federal lands” in the West, “the richest wild land in the world” (p 37). This suggestion is crucial to Nash’s thesis that if the Northern delegates had not compromised their moral principles and pushed abolition through, the economic problem could have been solved. However, the second problem he identifies was the social issue of how free blacks would or could be assimilated into a white society that was in many respects a racist one. Already, the returning of emancipated slaves to Africa was spoken of as a solution, since even some who were prepared to abolish slavery also wanted to be “quit of blacks” (p 43).

Subsequently, when a motion to outlaw slavery was proposed at the Convention, which would have lived up to the high ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, this was defeated. Nash argues that while much opposition came from the slave owning South, support also dwindled from the North. Their interests would have suffered too, either because they would have to contribute through taxation to compensation or because they did not know how to cope with a large emancipated black population. Instead, a resolution was passed that prevented Congress from interfering “in the emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them” for the next twenty years (pp 41-2). In addition, by allowing the inclusion of the “Fugitive clause” and reference to “three fifths of other persons” as counting towards State representation, they allowed the Constitution to implicitly condone slavery. On the one hand, the words “slave” and “slavery” are absent. On the other hand, everyone knew that the “Others” and the “fugitives” were slaves. Nash also argues that in the years following the ratification of the Constitution, Northerners did not attempt to launch a national abolition initiative either, being unwilling to make “economic sacrifices” and to “envision a truly biracial republican society” (p 35). They continued to point out that the “cancer of slavery had to be removed before a healthy republic could be constructed” but did nothing to “rekindle” the fire of abolitionism in “their own generation” (pp 35-36). Traditionally, historians blame the delicate North-South balance for the failure to abolish slavery. Nash disputes this, claiming that had the North insisted on abolition, the Southern states would have had little choice but to acquiesce. They needed, he argues, a strong central government to support them in their border wars with the Spanish and against various Indian nations (p 27). Finally, Nash argues that it was blacks and not whites that kept the ideals and principles of the Revolutionary spirit alive but that in order to do so they had to establish separate institutions. Autonomous black churches played a vital role. Blacks not always welcomed in white churches. White churches also afforded little or no opportunity for black leadership. In their own churches, blacks developed a “sense of peoplehood” (p 72) and leadership that kept the flame of liberty and the dream of equality alive, as one writer put it, it was “the children of Africa, whose freedom the Constitution sacrificed on the altar of a tenuous and limited white unity” who “pressed the nation toward its highest possibilities and toward a more perfect union” (p 83 citing Vincent Harding). Yet it would take the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement before real progress toward racial equality would begin.

Nash appears to interpret history as primarily driven by economic interests, arguing that the anti-slavery rhetoric of the Northerners was quickly compromised when economic interests were at risk. He supports this with numerous citations. For example, an anti-slavery pamphleteer such as Francis Allison did not free his own slaves until his death and then he extended their slavery “for several more years” through his will (p 31). Even Benjamin Rush, who is cited as claiming that the anti-slavery spirit was ripe and ready to prevail at the Constitutional Convention (p 9) still kept a slave (p 33). Nash downplays the argument that “South Carolina and Georgia” were “really in a 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) on the basis that their need for “the military power of a federal government” was greater. The weakness of Nash’s argument is that if it is conjecture to contend that the threat of non-ratification by the South compelled the North to compromise on slavery, it is also conjecture to suppose that the South would not have followed up on their threat. On the other hand, Nash’s marshalling of historical date shows how support for abolition dwindled in the North, strongly supporting his thesis that blame for failing to deal with slavery is to be shared by the North and by the South. We cannot actually know, from the data, whether the South would have abandoned the union or not. We do know that they continued to expand slavery and would abandon the union in 1861 when they formed the Confederacy.

Fundamental to Nash’s argument is the claim that slavery “required a national solution” (p 50). One view against this is that states could end slavery. Ten states had already done so. Perhaps the Northerners sincerely believed that keeping the slave-owning Southern states within the union was more important than ending slavery in the short term, that sooner or later the Southern states would follow their lead and begin gradual abolition. Nash repeatedly says that no one at the time thought that slavery could be abolished overnight, since time would be needed to pay compensation. Given that, as Nash says, all concerned saw compensation as a right, the issue of how to pay for this was a major stumbling block. He clearly preferred the Western option but does not stop to consider that this would have replaced one moral wrong with another. The Western lands did not belong to the United States but to the people who lived there. They were not uninhabited but home to indigenous people. Just as the British stole American soil, so would the US steal other people’s soil through the expansion Westwards. Nash does not actually explain why the Western option was left exploited, hinting that no one actually felt strongly enough about abolition to pursue this. In the end, it would take an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery, the 13th amendment, so Nash may be right to argue that a national solution was needed. Yet ten states had ended slavery, which suggests that if the slave-owning states had decided to abolish slavery, states could have achieved this without a national solution. Nash offers the book as an exercise in Constitutional studies but does not include an exhaustive exploration of how the Constitutional Convention might have resolved the issue. He does establish that the Northern delegates bowed to the wishes of the South, both to rule out an outright ban and to include the so-called pro-slavery clauses. Yet does he establish why the North did compromise? His argument is that they could have abolished slavery but compromised due to their economic and social interests. Perhaps analysis of documents and speeches cannot answer the question. Nash’s explanation offers an alternative to the standard argument and his contention that it was African-Americans who carried the torch of liberty and equality, not whites, raises issues about the sincerity of the framers of the US’s founding documents. Nash makes it quite clear that Thomas Jefferson, who penned the words “all men are created equal” believed in the “innate inferiority of blacks” (p 16). Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of Nash’s argument is that it was emancipated slaves themselves who represented the real spirit of the American Revolution. While the clause in the constitution that empowered the federal government to suppress insurrections has been counted as pro-slavery (permitting the crushing of slave-revolts”, Nash boldly states: “the American Revolution represents the largest slave uprising in” US history (p 57) given the number of slaves who joined forces with the British! Some of those who remained in the rebelling colonies threw their lot in with the rebels, fervently hoping that the “rhetoric of natural rights and personal freedom” gave them hope as well (p 63). Even when white society failed to deliver this, African-Americans did not give up hope but cultivated this in their separate “schools and mutual aid societies” (69).

The primary documents allow readers to formulate their own opinions on Nash’s argument, which can be compared with other views. More extensive discussion of what the Constitution does say (of the so-called pro-slavery clauses) would have made the book larger than it is but such material can be easily accessed elsewhere. The changing views, for example, of Frederick Douglas outlined by Robert Cohen (“Was the Constitution pro-slavery? The changing view of Frederick Douglass” Social Education, Sept 2008 246-250) who shifted from seeing it as pro-slavery, to ambiguous to anti-slavery would impact any final evaluation of Nash’s view. If the Constitution was actually anti-slavery, Northerners cannot be accused of compromising their ideals from economic self-interest. As a text for study and discussion, Race and Revolution raises important and painful questions about slavery, including whether the costly Civil War could have been avoided.

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