Vol. 30 No. 5 (June 2020) pp. 71-73

NO PROPERTY IN MAN: SLAVERY AND ANTISLAVERY AT THE NATION’S FOUNDING, by Sean Wilentz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 350pp. Hardcover $26.95 ISBN: 9780674972223.

Reviewed by Stephen Lansing, Department of Political Science, State University of New York at Albany. Email:

In his new work, NO PROPERTY IN MAN: SLAVERY AND ANTISLAVERY AT THE NATION’S FOUNDING, political historian Sean Wilentz presents a new and potentially controversial interpretation of the constitutional debate over slavery during the founding era of the United States. While acknowledging the pivotal role slavery played during the development of the U.S. Constitution, Wilentz calls for a reevaluation of this subject and asserts that the issue may be as one-sided as historians have previously believed. He argues that the focus on the Constitution as an “entirely proslavery document” misconstrues subtle actions taken by certain constitutional framers to instill antislavery sentiments in the founding document. According to Wilentz, while antislavery forces at the Constitutional Convention did make concessions to slaveholding powers that impeded future abolitionist efforts, they also made strategic distinctions that would open the door for future abolitionists to fight slavery in the United States. The book focuses on the antislavery framers’ refusal to explicitly acknowledge “property in man” which was a key theoretical argument in favor of maintaining slavery. Wilentz believes that this important technical distinction created a paradox at the heart of the American Constitution.

Wilentz situates his argument in the larger political-historical discussion regarding the role of private property in American Constitutional government. He advances the idea that defining what constitutes property was as essential to the development of the U.S. Constitution as the belief in the sanctity of private property in abstraction. It is through this lens that he aims to reexamine the 1787 debates regarding the place of slavery in the newly formed constitutional government and its long-term implications. He presents his argument in a chronological fashion, giving particular focus to antislavery attempts to discredit the concept of human beings being considered property. From this starting point, he relays the proslavery responses to this belief and presents the dialogue that occurred around the issue. [*72]

NO PROPERTY IN MAN begins its story prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, discussing the birth of antislavery politics and how the concept of “property in man” became central to both pro- and antislavery arguments. Wilentz argues that American antislavery sentiments were a revolutionary occurrence in the context of world history and that these ideas centered on the refusal to promote the commodification of human beings. He chronicles the development of several early abolitionist societies and situates them in the regional dialogue that took place around the fight to either preserve or abolish slavery. From these early rumblings of antislavery sentiment, he then turns to the Constitutional Convention itself. Relying heavily on the personal and private notes of James Madison and other delegates, Wilentz reconstructs the arguments regarding slavery that were expressed. Leading naturally from the convention he follows these debates through the drafting process to ratification and beyond. Throughout this drafting and ratification discussion, Wilentz highlights the tactical negotiations between proslavery and antislavery forces. He stresses that every decision made by early abolitionists was intended to halt slavery’s codification in national law and stifle proslavery attempts to sanction human bondage as an unalterable federal institution (while simultaneously making large concessions to proslavery forces). Finally, the book extends beyond the founding to the politics of slavery in antebellum American and how they played out over the next sixty years, inevitably leading to the American Civil War.

While Wilentz’s analysis does present an interesting new way to understand the founding debates regarding slavery, there do seem to be some limitations to his analysis. First, he attempts to infer particular meaning from primary notes and documents taken from the framers where such interpretation may not be warranted. Similar to many other constitutional analyses, the available firsthand evidence on meaning and intent regarding the U.S. Constitution is particularly sparse. Wilentz, however, presents several examples of delegates promoting antislavery beliefs or sentiments that could not explicitly be verified. While this limitation may detract from some individual points made in the book regarding committee discussions or closed votes, it does not detract from the overall argument which is bolstered by other publically available accounts.

Regarding the argument itself, Wilentz may have presented some founding political figures as being more firmly entrenched in “abolitionist” thought than they truly were. The book does begin with a qualifying “Notes on Terminology” section that explains his intentions when describing certain framers as “abolitionists”. He attempts to convey that the commonly held belief that antislavery [*73] sentiments only began in America with the immediate abolitionists of the 1830s is misleading. Despite this initial clarification of meaning and terminology, Wilentz could have been more explicit in his characterization of certain antislavery framers and how they differed from future abolitionists. While attempting to show that abolitionism had a larger history than commonly believed, he may have given early antislavery advocates more credit than they deserve. However, despite this potential confusion it is important to present the full history of antislavery sentiments in American constitutionalism. While the framers may not have been staunch abolitionists in the Garrisonian tradition, their attempts to limit slavery’s spread have major implications for the direction of American history.

Overall, Wilentz presents a well-researched and extensively sourced analysis of the founding discussions regarding slavery in America. His reevaluation of primary texts and debates opens a new line of discussion regarding the relationship between the U.S. Constitution and slavery. While there can be no question that major concessions were made to slave powers at the founding, this work helps present a fuller history of constitutional debate taking place at the time. Wilentz helps shed light on the political conflict of the time and situates proslavery arguments in relation to antislavery challenges. This book will challenge historians and political scientists alike in their preconceptions regarding the place of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. While it is imperative to never forget that slavery was a real and insidious institution in the United States, it is also important to understand the arguments that were proposed to fight it. This work helps illuminate some prevailing theories that were used to undermine the legitimacy of slavery as an institution and create opportunities for future generations to destroy it.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Stephen Lansing.