Slavery’s Constitution: Rethinking the Federal Consensus
By Maeve Glass
For at least half a century, scholars of the early American Constitution have noted the archival prominence of a doctrine known as the “federal consensus.” This doctrine instructed that Congress had no power to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it existed. Despite its ubiquity in the records, our understanding of how and why this doctrine emerged is hazy at best. Working from a conceptual map of America’s founding that features thirteen local governments coalescing into two feuding sections of North and South, commentators have tended to explain
the federal consensus either as a vestige of a much older constitutional tradition rooted in localism or as the result of a brokered political compromise between the sections. Cast as an archaic relic of the colonial era or as a one-off political compromise, the doctrine has appeared in the most recent scholarship as one that by the mid-1800s had devolved into a limp and unpersuasive rhetorical disclaimer.
This Essay offers a different origins story for the federal consensus, one that invites us to re-center the doctrine’s central importance in the founding constitutional order. Drawing on a model of inquiry that expands the conventional map of America’s founding to include the material modes of production and exchange, this Essay allows us to see how the bedrock principle of noninterference emerged not only from the oft cited vestiges of localism and sectionalism but also from the customary practices and exigencies of long-distance maritime trade in the Atlantic world. As economic historians have shown, long before the doctrine appeared in print in 1790, America’s merchant class had forged a trading network along the Atlantic coast, creating an interregional economy that spanned from the Massachusetts Bay to the plantation coast and outer-lying islands. Predicated on a rule of noninterference with the underlying modes of enslaved labor on which white wealth depended, these preexisting norms of racialized property ownership and commercial exchange provided a useful starting point for the rules of constitutional union at a time when the concepts and structures of public law constitutional governance in the newly created United States remained inchoate and ill-defined.
By recovering this genealogy and expanding our map of the founding, this Essay offers a more complete view of the origins of one of the oldest and most consequential rules of constitutional union. In doing so, it allows us to see the institution of racial slavery not simply as one confined to a single section of the South and upheld by its peculiar doctrine of states’ rights but as a fundamentally American institution, one upheld by a rule of federal and state inaction in the face of slavery’s systemic taking of Black lives.