The American Civil War could have broken out as early as 1787.
It's certainly difficult to believe, for this was a war sparked by the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president who southerners believed posed a threat to slavery, and by the resulting secession of the South (seven states, to be exact). Lincoln's Republican Party didn't even exist until 1854, and no state had ever seceded from the Union before South Carolina voted in December of 1860 to do just that. In fact, no major political party objected to the existence of slavery in the United States prior to the creation of the abolitionist Liberty Party in the 1830s.
Still, it was during the Revolutionary era that slavery in America first became a topic of public debate, and when the issue first threatened to tear the burgeoning nation apart. And it's not entirely surprising; many of history's greatest revolutions—the French Revolution, the October Revolution in Russia, and major uprisings in Germany, India, Spain, Portugal, and Cuba, to name a few—were followed by fierce and often bloody counterrevolutions spurred by extreme dissatisfaction with new reigning leaders and their policies. The newly formed national government of the United States managed to escape such a fate, but perhaps only narrowly.
Upon defeating Britain, the United States became the first independent nation in the Western Hemisphere—a monumental triumph. But success in the war also resulted in a number of critical—and potentially dangerous—transformations in the republic's physical, ideological, and political landscape.
Victory triggered a widespread migration of colonists from the eastern and southern coasts to frontier regions in the west. The British Crown, in order to stabilize trade relations with Native Americans, had prevented American colonists from venturing west of the Appalachian Mountains up until the 1783 Treaty of Paris. But with peace, the new republic claimed the territory and opened it to new settlement. Americans flocked to the western lands, often bringing slaves with them, and took possession of available acreage. Government officials sought to regulate the migration of, as Benjamin Franklin called them, "debtors, loose English people, our German servants, and slaves," by establishing rules for occupation of the land north of the Ohio River.21
In 1787, the same year of the Constitutional Convention, the federal government (under the Articles of Confederation) passed the Northwest Ordinance. The measure authorized the establishment of several new states east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River that would be admitted as equal members of the Union. Each state would be allowed to draft its own constitution, with one provision: slavery must be prohibited. For the first time, the status of slavery in a territory had become a condition for statehood.
Surprising as it may seem, Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia planter who owned slaves and defended the institution, drafted the ordinance. He, like many slaveholders from the Upper South, envisioned an eventual end to slavery over time, even though he failed to make the necessary sacrifices to bring about abolition in his own time. However, planters from other southern states, particularly Georgia and South Carolina, had become increasingly dependent upon their slaves and opposed any concessions that might weaken the institution and threaten their rights as property holders. For this reason, the Northwest Ordinance drove the first major wedge between the increasingly "free" North and much of the slaveholding South.
In addition to expanding its territory, the Revolutionary War transformed the ways in which many Americans perceived and articulated their desire for freedom. In the case of hundreds of thousands of slaves, the defeat and expulsion of a colonial power proved that, if all else failed, armed struggle could secure independence and prevent any encroachment upon one's natural rights.
Success in the Revolutionary War set a precedent for slaves who sought more radical means to win emancipation. African-Americans, inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, demanded that the leaders of this war for liberty live up to their word. Many chose to utilize the chaos of war and its aftermath by running away and attempting to blend in with free black communities, particularly in the North. Some sued their masters in court, while others issued petitions to state and local authorities. One of these "freedom petitions" addressed to the Massachusetts state legislature read, "We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them."22
In most colonies such appeals were rarely acknowledged, much less entertained. Thus, just as the fiery rhetoric of American Revolutionary leaders ultimately led to armed conflict, so too did slave manifestos beget violent rebellion. In the decades following the nation's arduous struggle for freedom from the British, black slaves conspired to seize power from their masters, overthrow local government, and murder those who opposed them. All such plots were ultimately unsuccessful; nevertheless, the language of the Revolution (along with news of the victorious, slave-led revolution in Haiti that began in 1791) resulted in a series of slave uprisings. These revolts prompted southern leaders to tighten controls over the black population—free and unfree—and to demand cooperation from northerners. But such a partnership would not survive.
"Freedom" meant something quite different for the state leaders who served as delegates during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. These men were careful to protect their respective regions from abuses of federal power, which they feared might become a new sort of imperial force wielding control over "subject" states. They also aimed to create a structure of government that would give each state, no matter how small in area or population, an equal share in legislative power. Such a balance was difficult to strike; Convention negotiations were fraught with vigorous debate and disconcerting quarrels as the delegates demanded solutions.
One such conflict arose over state representation in the federal government. Delegates agreed that in order to protect individual liberties, the new Constitution should disperse federal power among three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. But they disagreed over the manner in which each state would fit into the equation; would representation in the legislature hinge upon land mass or population? Ultimately, delegates approved a two-house Congress consisting of a Senate, in which each state regardless of its size would have two members, and a House of Representatives, in which state seats would be granted based on population.
The compromise that created a bicameral Congress did not, however, alleviate tensions brewing in the Constitutional Convention. In fact, it served as a backdrop for another critical argument between slaveholders and antislavery advocates, and no delegates present at the Convention were more determined to win that debate than those from South Carolina. These statesmen were determined to prevent the new federal government from abolishing slavery or from composing any amendment to the new Constitution that might jeopardize the institution in the future.
To further insure the rights of slave states, South Carolina's delegates demanded a series of clauses. First, the federal government should require all states—free or slave—to return fugitive slaves to their owners. Second, three-fifths of the slave population should be counted in determining each state's total population for the purpose of representation in Congress and in the Electoral College. And, third, if the importation of slaves must be banned—as most delegates argued—then that prohibition must be delayed for as long as possible.
South Carolina representatives were so resolute in their agenda that when it appeared other delegates might frustrate the plan, they threatened to secede from the Union; no one took this challenge lightly. In fact, these warnings persuaded many at the Convention to accept the southern state's demands and write the slavery clauses into the Constitution rather than endanger national unity.
In accepting this tremendous compromise, the Convention delegates may have averted a secession crisis and perhaps even civil war. In this way, it could be argued that American statesmen prevented a "counterrevolution" in 1787. It's also possible that at this rare moment in which the specific policies of the new nation were still undecided, leaders might have stamped out slavery altogether, eliminating it as a potentially divisive issue. It is true that South Carolina may have consequently made good on its promise to secede, but even so, few other states would have followed. South Carolina would have become a lone stranded colony, isolated economically and politically from the United States.
Nevertheless, delegates at the constitutional negotiations chose to quell sectional tensions by safeguarding slavery in the very language of the Constitution. This compact would haunt the country throughout the next 70 years, inciting bitter political conflict over what was increasingly becoming an institution "peculiar" to the South and fostering both dependence upon and hostility for the power that slavery engendered.