Republicanism, Slavery, and the Constitution

Fall 2018 Kinder Institute Colloquium Series

In late 2017, University of Alaska-Anchorage Assistant Professor of Political Science Forrest Nabors published From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction as part of the Kinder Institute’s Studies in Constitutional Democracy monograph series with University of Missouri Press. The book, which went to win APSA’s American Political Thought Award for Best Book of 2017, reflects Prof. Nabors’ abiding interest in regimes and systems, as he argues in it that antebellum republicans understood slavery as both the greatest direct and greatest indirect threat to a government that derives its authority from the people—first and foremost because it was a moral blight that violated the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence but also because it was an institution that facilitated structural shifts toward oligarchic rule of the wealthy, slave-owning few.

As he discussed in his October 5 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, his new book project works backward in time from The Great Task of Reconstruction to argue that many members of the founding generation likewise saw slavery not only as a flagrant violation of natural rights but also as the most significant impediment to enshrining republican government throughout the nation. This was readily apparent in New England, where Lockean rhetoric about the universality of natural rights rang out before Locke even began writing, and where, in the years after the Revolution, this republican sentiment was quickly codified in the structure of state governments. Where Prof. Nabors focused his attention, however, was in the late-18th- and early-19th-century mid-Atlantic—particularly, Virginia—where a measure of anti-slavery, republican sentiment was developing in spite of the aristocratic, slaveholding form of government that prevailed in many parts of the region. And he noted how there was some push, even in Virginia, to match sentiment and structure, with figures such as Patrick Henry not only speaking out openly about slavery as a moral wrong but also looking to Massachusetts’ constitution as a model for how to secure republican self-government in the state.

Of course, this observation leaves a stark contradiction unresolved: why Henry and others’ enlightened rhetoric did not result in enlightened practice. Why, that is, did the southerly, state-by-state course of abolition in the years after the Revolution not continue from Pennsylvania to Virginia. As Prof. Nabors pointed out—and as was discussed further in Q&A—scale was certainly part of it. In New York, for example, slave owners held only 6% of the state’s legislative capital and thus had no means of preventing abolition; in Virginia, on the other hand, this number was closer to 40%, and slave owners predictably voted in ways that preserved their own financial self-interest (and, in this, in ways that raised questions about the substance of anti-slavery rhetoric).

Still, Prof. Nabors argued that there are other aspects to the political narrative of pre-1820 Virginia that often go unexamined and that add dimension to the contradiction noted above. State delegates voted 5-2 at the Constitutional Convention, for example, to develop a national plan to end slavery. Manumission laws in the state were quickly eased after the Revolution. And as America hurtled toward the Missouri Crisis after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1808, Virginia supported a policy of diffusion, which would have legalized slavery in western territories, not out of pro-slavery extensionist sentiment but out of a belief that this would put the U.S. on the path to national abolition.

To call Virginia’s support of diffusion a miscalculation would be an understatement. The 1820 Missouri Compromise, which permitted slavery in certain western lands, would splinter whatever anti-slavery coalition had begun to form between New England and the lower Mid-Atlantic, and the divide would only grow in the decades after, as a younger generation of southern statesmen gravitated toward favoring and defending slavery rather than continuing to pursue reform projects that at least had the potential to advance the cause of abolition in the U.S.


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.