Republicanism, Slavery, and the Constitution

Fall 2018 Kinder Institute Colloquium Series

University of Alaska-Anchorage Assistant Professor of Political Science will make the long trek to Columbia to give a preview of the follow-up to his first book, From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, which was published as part of the Kinder Institute’s Studies in Constitutional Democracy monograph series with MU Press and recently received the American Political Thought Book Award for Best Book of 2017 from the American Political Science Association (see below for both a talk and a book abstract). Free and open to the public, the talk will be held on October 5 at 3:30pm in Jesse Hall 410.

Talk Abstract

On the slavery question, a majority of the American Founders north of South Carolina spoke and acted for the ultimate extinction of slavery, because they believed slavery and republicanism were irreconcilable. Their strategy was to change the ratio of enslaved to free persons over time, in favor of the latter, which they believed would facilitate national abolition. This strategy underwrote the logic of “diffusion,” the preferred policy of antislavery republicans in Virginia, especially. By the time of the Missouri debates in 1819-1820, northern and southern antislavery statesmen had split, which was exploited by proslavery perpetualists, and aided the admission of Missouri as a slave state.

Thereafter, proslavery, pro-oligarchy statesmen in the South reinterpreted the Constitution and the intentions of the founders to accommodate their principal interests, the extension of slavery and therewith, the extension of oligarchic government. That reinterpretation survived the Civil War and has thrived ever since.

Book Abstract

On December 4, 1865, members of the 39th United States Congress walked into the Capitol Building to begin their first session after the end of the Civil War. They understood their responsibility to put the nation back on the path established by the American Founding Fathers. The moment when the Republicans in the Reconstruction Congress remade the nation and renewed the law is in a class of rare events. The Civil War should be seen in this light.

In From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, University of Alaska-Anchorage Professor Forrest A. Nabors shows that the ultimate goal of the Republican Party, the war, and Reconstruction was the same. This goal was to preserve and advance republicanism as the American founders understood it, against its natural, existential enemy: oligarchy. The principle of natural equality justified American republicanism and required abolition and equal citizenship. Likewise, slavery and discrimination on the basis of color stand on the competing moral foundation of oligarchy, the principle of natural inequality, which requires ranks.

This book presents a shared analysis of the slave South, synthesized from the writings and speeches of the Republicans who served in the 38th, 39th or 40th Congress, from 1863-1869, to show how the Republican majority, charged with the responsibility of reconstructing the South, understood the South. In particular, Nabors focuses on how these writings and speeches reflected a deep understanding of the degree to which slavery’s existence transformed the character of political society not only in the nation but also the region, and thus how the insurrectionary states’ government had to be reconstructed at their very foundations for full political liberty to be restored.


Forrest A. Nabors received his B.A. from University of Chicago, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from University of Oregon, and he currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Alaska-Anchorage. His current scholarship focuses on the changing character of American government leading up to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and his first book From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (MU Press) recently received the APSA American Political Thought Award for Best Book of 2017. He has also taught government and political philosophy at University of Oregon and Oregon State University, and prior to returning to academia, he was a high-tech business executive in Portland, OR.