Slavery in the American Republic – Developing the Federal Government, 1791-1861

 By David F. Ericson

  Lawrence Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-7006-1796-8.  298 pages including notes and index. 

Reviewed by:  Mark E. Hubbs, Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table (TVCWRT)

Slavery in the American Republic – Developing the Federal Government, 1791-1861  By David F. Ericson
Slavery in the American Republic – Developing the Federal Government, 1791-1861
By David F. Ericson

This book was reviewed as part of an ongoing book review project initiated by the TVCWRT in 2011.  Books submitted by various publishers are chosen by TVCWRT members for analysis and critique.

David F. Ericson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University.  This is his third book on the politics of Slavery in the American experience.  Many scholars suggest that the institution of slavery slowed the development of the American state because of the friction between Southern and Northern politicians in the effort to protect slavery (Ericson uses the term “American state” instead of “Federal Government” in his narrative.)  Ericson presents evidence to prove the contrary – that the “peculiar institution” actually contributed to the expansion of American Federal government power.  I was drawn to the wide scope that the title seemed to promise.  However, Erikson’s arguments extended to just four main areas where the Federal Government increased expenditure of resources and extended its power in relation to slavery during this time frame.  These four areas were: enforcement of the slave embargo, establishment of the colony of Liberia, military expansion to protect slavery and enlargement of the Federal Government law enforcement due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The first area where the American state was developed as a result of slavery was the enforcement of the 1808 embargo of slaves that was required as part of the US Constitution.  After that date the US Navy became more and more involved in intercepting slave ships reroute from Africa to North America.  At first this was intended to block slavers bringing cargo to the United States.  However, in 1820 United States ships began patrolling off the west coast of Africa in concert with ships from Britain and other European countries.  This participation in the “African Squadron” waxed and waned as different administrations took interest.  The largest expenditure in men and ships to the African squadron occurred in the two years before the outbreak of the Civil War.  The War ended forever the anti-slaving patrols along the African coast.

Surprisingly, the most fervent support of the embargo came from the upper tier of Southern states.  Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky relied on the sale of slaves to the Deep South and western southern states.  The biggest battles over the embargo were not between the north and south, but between the upper south and Deep South who clamored for cheap slave labor.

Related to the enforcement of the slave embargo was the founding of the colony of Liberia.  As the enforcement of the embargo grew, the United States government partnered with The American Colonization Society (ACS) to establish a colony on the west coast of Africa.  This colony would provide a refuge for African Americans who desired to seek a better life in Africa, and a place to repatriate Africans who were rescued on the high seas from slave ships.  Many prominent Americans were members of the ACS, and doubtlessly many of these people’s desires may have been bigoted as they were interested in ridding America of Africans, instead ensuring that former slaves enjoyed a happy life in the “mother country.”  Members of the ACS lobbied congress for several years before the US government provided funding to the ACS.  Land was purchased from local leaders on the coast to establish Liberia and the United States established its first overseas colony in 1820.  Free blacks in America, who desired to move to Liberia, were offered free transport by the ACS, which was largely funded by contributions by wealthy Americans.  US Government funding for the colony changed during the years.  Although the Government only provided one third of the operating costs, the success of the colony relied on this funding and the support of the United States Navy for protection and transport of goods.  Eventually 10,000 African Americans were transported to Liberia, and several thousand rescued blacks were repatriated there.  The colony received its independence in 1847.

The longest and most costly military action of the early 19th Century was the series of three “Seminole” wars that occurred intermittently from 1814 until 1858.  Seminole is the collective name given to an amalgamation of various groups of Native Americans and Black people who settled in Florida in the early 18th century.  On the surface, these appeared to be campaigns to remove native groups from Florida, especially after the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  However, since colonial times, native tribes in Florida had been a safe haven for escaped slaves from Georgia and South Carolina.  Groups of Seminoles, and their adopted African members, occasionally launched raids into Georgia to plunder and to kidnap slaves to add to their numbers.  Strong lobbying from Southern states resulted in military action to curtail this refuge for escaped slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act (FSA) of 1850 created a new law enforcement role for the United States Government.  This new law, which required the Federal and State governments to apprehend slaves who had escaped to free states, outraged most northerners.  Unlike the cries of “state’s rights” which emanated from the south in 1861, slave holding states were quick to deny state’s rights to free states when it came to fugitive slaves.  Southern states demanded that the Federal Government act when law enforcement personnel in free states failed to adhere to the FSA.  Because of the requirements of the FSA, the U.S. Marshal’ office was enlarged both in size and power.  Its oversight was shifted from the Department of State to the Attorney Generals’ Office. This created the first autonomous federal law-enforcement agency.  For the first time, Federal officials began to become involved on a large scale in state and local matters.  This had not occurred before 1850.

For each of these four areas, the Ericson cites expenditures of funds and increases in Federal personnel.  However, these figures are seldom put into context with other areas of Federal influence or spending.  As a result, it is difficult to see just how much the institution of slavery actually developed the Federal Government.  I think the author falls short of the premise that the title alludes to.  However, the author does an admirable job of describing the Government’s role is the four areas outlined above.  Much of the information was new to me and I found it very interesting.  Of particular note is the revelation that some of the political friction relating to slavery was between different elements of the Southern states instead of between North and South.

The issue of State’s Rights and how it was perceived and demanded by slave holding states was very illuminating.  Southern states clamored for a curtailment of the rights of states if those rights negatively affected slavery.  They demanded that the rights of the states be observed if those rights protected human bondage.

Mark Hubbs is an eleven year veteran of the US Army Infantry.  Since leaving active duty in 1992 and retiring from the Army Reserve in 2001, he has served as an historian and archaeologist for the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.  His work has taken him to several far-flung islands in the Pacific where the fierce battles of World War II have left relics both above and below the surface of the corral sand, including Wake Island, Kwajalein Atoll and Midway Island.