How Secure Was Slavery in the Union?

In this final installment of the New York Times’s Disunion column, Paul Finkelman surveys some of the significant ways the Civil War changed how Americans interpret the Constitution. Finkelman offers the following observation to illustrate the extent of the constitution’s protection of the institution of slavery.

Finally, it took two-thirds of Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states, and it took three-fourths of the states to ratify any amendment. Had the 15 slave states all remained in the Union, to this day, in 2015, it would be impossible to end slavery by constitutional amendment, since in a 50-state union, it takes just 13 states to block an amendment.

Keep that in mind next time you are told that slavery would have died a natural death had there not been a civil war.

11 thoughts on “How Secure Was Slavery in the Union?

  1. jim

    “Had the 15 slave states all remained in the Union, to this day, in 2015, it would be impossible to end slavery by constitutional amendment, since in a 50-state union, it takes just 13 states to block an amendment” Makes 2 assumptions not 1 assumption. All 15 States stayed in the Union and all 15 remained Slave States. A change of just 3 Slave States to Free States over 150 years results in only 12 Slave States.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      A change of just 3 Slave States to Free States over 150 years results in only 12 Slave States.

      Sure, but given the profitability of slavery in 1861 it is not at all clear how long that would have taken.

      Reply
      1. Jimmy Dick

        Look at Delaware for a good example. There were hardly any slaves left in the state by 1861, but when it came time to end slavery they couldn’t do it. It required something far more convincing to make it happen.

        Plus, history shows us that some thought slavery would die a natural death…as they made the Constitution of the United States. They didn’t foresee Eli Whitney inventing a cotton gin. Eliminate the CW and maybe something might have happened that made slavery even more profitable. There is no possible way of knowing what would have happened, but based on what we do know, slavery was not going to die in 1861.

        Reply
  2. Ted McKnight

    “given the profitability of slavery in 1861” also makes an assumption that it would remain profitable. With the influx of white slaves into the Northern states it became quickly apparent that paying a worker a low hourly wage with no other responsibilities was economically superior to the slavery ‘business model’. As the slave population increased, their trade value decreased and the cost of supporting a person, often
    during many non-productive years was not feasible compared to hourly wages. Post-war, in the South, slavery was replaced by tenant farmers. This practice continues to this day, although it largely disappeared after WWII.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Not at all. In fact, this point directly conflicts with a wide range of recent research on the economics of slavery. I suggest reading new books by Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, and Sven Beckert. The institution of slavery adjusted quite well to changes in the economy in the mid-19th century.

      Reply
  3. London John

    Surely the immediate cause of secession was Lincoln’s commitment to limit slavery to the existing slave states? So to avoid the CW it would have been necessary to allow new slave states to be created. Alternatively, if the South had accepted the restriction, both Lincoln and the slaveholders believed that slavery would become unprofitable if it couldn’t expand. Is it not generally accepted that by restricting slavery Lincoln intended to destroy it?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Is it not generally accepted that by restricting slavery Lincoln intended to destroy it?

      It certainly reflects James Oakes recent interpretation in his book, Freedom National. That said, remember the war could have ended with slavery intact in all the states before 1863.

      Reply
  4. James F. Epperson

    The point about the number of states is one I have made before, but it should be remembered that the number of states carved out of the west was not set in stone. One can easily see things like “East Montana” and “West Montana” and other divisions of our current existing states. But even if DE became a free state, the 3/4s rule would still require a 56-state union to end slavery.

    Reply
  5. Hugh Lawson

    How to undermine slavery without a constitutional amendment.

    1. Make it law that the Bill of Rights limits the States. Read through the first ten amendments.

    2. Pass an enabling act concerning the interstate return of fugitive slaves, designed to make it harder to return fugitives.

    3. Write a uniform system of bankruptcy to to be antislavery.

    4. Let black people in the free states have the jobs they could do, and live where they could pay the rent. (Utopian, I know, but metaphysically possible)

    5. Pass laws regulating interstate commerce designed to work against slavery.

    The secessionists wanted out because of realistic fears.

    Reply
    1. Hugh Lawson

      Just to show a little where I’m “coming from”: Slaveowners understood that the big runup in slave prices during the 1850s depended on confidence in the future of the institution (Gavin Wright, Political Economy of Slavery). If banks started fearing a crash in slave prices, they could make it worse by calling in debts secured by slave property. Lending money against the security of slave property was big business for the slave-state banks. Eric Foner showed years ago that the antislavery Republicans teemed with ideas about how to undermine slavery (Free Soil Free Labor Free Men), James Oakes’s recent books have emphasized the seriousness of antislavery intentions to undermine slavery. We don’t know how these plans would have worked out, because the deep-south slave states seceded–and, as Jim Epperson’s document collection shows, they explained that they feared the consequences of the antislavery agitation for the future of slavery, for those who haven’t learned it from standard historical works.

      Reply
  6. Tim Balch

    “2. Pass an enabling act concerning the interstate return of fugitive slaves, designed to make it harder to return fugitives.” But, as long as Southern and South-leaning legislators and jurists could control the passage and interpretation of such acts, it wasn’t going to be harder to return fugitives. See for example, PRIGG V. PENNSYLVANIA : SLAVERY, THE SUPREME COURT, AND THE AMBIVALENT CONSTITUTION/ by H. Robert Baker.

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