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Historical Introduction
Slavery and the Ratification of the Constitution

The period of the American Revolution has attracted relatively little in-depth attention from scholars interested in the institution of slavery. Only a handful of books and articles concentrate on this period--most scholars saunter through the last quarter of the eighteenth century with their eyes focused on the antebellum period when slavery and abolitionism took center stage in national politics.

This collection of documents looks at American attitudes toward a system that held an entire race in bondage during this formative period of the new nation. It asks the question of how Americans could enter their Revolutionary struggle for independence with an empathy toward black slaves deprived of their liberties, only to have many Americans change that empathy into an institutionalized justification of slavery and a blatant racism that stigmatized freed blacks. A majority of Americans in 1776 favored the closing of the African slave trade and, at least philosophically, the idea of a general emancipation of slaves; but a decade later the overall attitude of the country had changed. In the South, slavery became more strongly entrenched than ever, and the "positive good" thesis of slavery sprang to life. In the North, a small minority's intense fervor for emancipation grew steadily alongside a tolerance for the continued existence of slavery in the South and a persistent, mean-spirited racism in the North.

Arguably the best way to understand the minds of America's founding generation is to let them speak for themselves. These people thought deeply about the issues of race and slavery, and the contradictions of their situation were apparent to many of them. They almost all hated slavery for what it did to blacks as well as what it did to themselves and their children. They saw how the institution of slavery made petty tyrants out of masters, while at the same time masters struggled in a life and death conflict with Great Britain to throw off the imperial yoke of tyranny. The writings of this founding generation document this struggle of conscience and the ultimate failure to eradicate slavery.

Slavery was a crucial issue for the Founders. By collecting and publishing the documentation on the issue of slavery during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, it is hoped that a deeper appreciation will be gained of the institution of slavery itself and the personal and political travails of the founding generation--slaveholders, opponents of slavery, and slaves--as it grappled with its seemingly insoluble moral dilemma.


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