Starting Points Journal: Michael Zuckert on Madison, Slavery, and the Constitution

James Madison - John Vanderlyn

Starting Points Journal: “Slavery and the Constitution in Madisonian Perspective”

By Michael Zuckert


“There is no need to rehearse in detail the various debates over the Founders and slavery that have roiled academic and political waters since the mid-twentieth century. Suffice it to say that the main antagonists can plausibly be called Neo-Garrisonians and Neo-Lincolnians, after William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln. Today these two schools have been reborn as partisans of 1619 and partisans of 1776 as the most significant benchmark dates in American history. The debates between them concern two issues in the main. First, how favorable was the Constitution toward slavery? And second, what were the motives upon which the Founding generation acted?

The Neo-Garrisonians answer the first set of questions rather straightforwardly: the Constitution was very favorable to the institution of slavery and gave it a great deal of life-sustaining aid. The Neo-Lincolnians, however, while conceding that the Constitution did indeed make some accommodations to slavery, deny that these were nearly as substantial as the Neo-Garrisonians claim. The Neo-Garrisonians answer the second set of questions by arguing that the Founders were moved by the same complex of motives that led to the establishment and flourishing of the institution in the first place: greed, racism, Christian triumphalism, and moral indifference being the chief items on their list. The Neo-Lincolnians argue that the place of slavery in the constitutional order was due primarily to the press of necessity: without concessions to slavery, the Union would not have been possible. The Neo-Lincolnians frequently point to the expectation—or hope—among the Founders that the process of abolition in the states, begun during and after the Revolution, would continue until the blight of slavery had been removed from the land. As Lincoln himself put it, the founders lived in the expectation of the ‘ultimate extinction of slavery’…”

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Michael ZuckertMichael P. Zuckert is a Visiting Professor at Arizona State University and the Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Political Science, Emeritus. He has published extensively in both Political Theory and Constitutional Studies. His books include Natural Rights and the New Republicanism, the Natural Rights RepublicLaunching Liberalism, and (with Catherine Zuckert) The Truth About Leo Strauss and Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy, in addition to many articles. He has also edited The Spirit of Religion & the Spirit of Liberty and (with Derek Webb) The Antifederal Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle. He is completing Natural rights and the New Constitutionalism, a study of American constitutionalism in a theoretical context. Professor Zuckert taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Political Philosophy and Theory, American Political Thought, American Constitutional Law, American Constitutional History, Constitutional Theory, and Philosophy of Law. His advising specialties were graduate programs in political science. He is a 2019 Visiting Professor in Arizona State University’s School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership. He co-authored and co-produced a public radio series, Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson: A Nine Part Drama for the Radio. He was also senior scholar for Liberty! (1997), a six-hour public television series on the American Revolution and served as senior advisor on the PBS series on Ben Franklin (2002) and Alexander Hamilton (2007).

Professor Zuckert is a JMC faculty partner.

Learn more about Michael Zuckert >>




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