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William Henry Harrison Discusses the Politics of Slavery
Digital History ID 347

Author:   William H. Harrison


Two years before he was elected president, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) argued for the sovereign independence of states and insisted that slavery is a matter for the states alone to consider. His position on the inability of the federal government to interfere in any way with slavery in the existing states is an expression of what historians term "the federal consensus." This was the widespread assumption, shared by most radical abolitionists as well as lawyers and judges, that the Constitution left the issue of slavery to the states and prohibited the federal government from interfering with the institution in states where it already existed.

It was this consensus that made the question of slavery in the territories so urgent and vital. Even Abraham Lincoln assumed that the central government could never tamper with slavery in the states. Hence, it took an act of rebellion to finally justify limited emancipation as a war measure.


I have come to the determination from necessity to decline giving my opinion too indiscreetly upon political subjects for publication. Had I not adopted this rule I would have to sacrifice my business (necessary to the support of my very large family) & devote myself entirely to political writing. But as you tell me that you are about publishing a pamphlet on the subject of slavery I will as a friend give you my opinion upon one constitutional principle in relation to which either you or I may greatly err. No one I think can understand the character of our particular Government without having it impressed upon his mind that our Union is a Union of Sovereign Independent States & that in every particular where power is not expressly surrendered by that instrument to the General Government it is retained by the states and that in the relations to matters so retained they are as completely Sovereign & independent of the Genl. Government and of each other as are France and Great Britain. You seem to suppose that an Article in the Constitution not having been inserted in it, the General Govt would have the complete power over the slavery question in the states. The slave holding states (of which there were at that time 9 out of 13) did not wish to have such an article inserted. They retained the complete control over the subject of slavery within their own boundaries by not surrendering it. All that they wished to have inserted in the Constitution related to the subject was that where their slaves fled from them & sought refuge in other states that they should be delivered upon their application. When say that "an early and amicable acquaintance of the question is desirable," it cannot refer to slavery in other states but may with propriety refer to the District of Columbia, within which the power of Legislation is expressively given to Congress. But no law which that body can pass may in any way effect the right which the slave holding states claim over their slaves any more than Congress can pass a law to change the general rules of elections in the states or define the period when minors are to be freed from the control of their parents. To do either would change the whole character of the Government and realise the dread of large portions of the ablest statesmen in our country at the period of the adoption of the Constitution that it would end first in a consolidation & then in a despotism which latter could only be averted by preserving the independence of the states.... The citizens of the free States have the right as individuals to give their opinion to their brethren in Slave States upon the subject of Slavery....[B]ut they have no power whatever to control them upon any of these subjects....

Give them your opinions then upon the former subjects but I can tell you that however able your appeal to them [the slaveholding states] may be on the abstract question if you assume the right of control over the subject either for the US (except as to the District of Columbia) the free states authorities or yourself individually it may do no harm but will certainly do no good.

I repeat that I wrote to you mainly as a friend & not by any means for publication.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: William Henry Harrison to John B. Dillon

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