Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





James Oakes

Committee Members

James Oakes

Eric Foner

David Waldstreicher

Andrew W. Robertson

Richard B. Bernstein

Subject Categories

Political History | United States History


Slavery, Antislavery, Civil War, Political, Constitutional, Antebellum


“Neither a Slave nor a King” intervenes in the scholarly debate over the “antislavery origins” of the sectional crisis in antebellum America – how the rise of a northern antislavery movement escalated the sectional tensions that led to southern secession and the Civil War. There are two main strands of literature on the antislavery origins of the sectional crisis. The first, in which social and cultural historians are dominant, focuses on the rise of radical (or “immediate”) abolitionism in the 1830s, exploring its impact on North-South relations and antebellum reform generally. The other strand, written by political and legal historians, looks at the emergence of antislavery politics in the 1840s and 50s – the effort to dislodge the “Slave Power” from the federal government and ban slavery’s expansion into the western territories. This historiographical divide is quickly disappearing, but its premises and assumptions still shape the literature, muddying the terms of the sectional debate over slavery and casting a shadow on the premises and assumptions of the antislavery movement. While there is ample evidence in the literature regarding how antislavery activists agitated the slavery question, it is still difficult to see what activists planned to do about slavery.

This dissertation fills that gap by examining the origins and evolution of the chief political project of antislavery activists in the period 1820-1848: the effort to reorient federal policy so that it favored freedom and discouraged slavery, forcing the slave states to commence gradual abolition on their own. It also recovers the forgotten premises and assumptions of the slavery conflict between 1835 (the beginning of the abolitionists’ mass petition drives) and 1843 (the commencement of the Texas annexation controversy). The slavery controversy rarely focused on slavery’s status in the states; instead, it considered slavery’s relationship to federal power in areas of the Union outside the slave states, in places like Washington, D.C., the “free” states of the North, and U.S. coastal waters. In recovering the terms of slavery debate, the dissertation also sheds light on the premises and assumptions of the antislavery movement, broadly conceived. Drawing on an array of congressional records, federal and state court cases, private and public correspondence, abolitionist publications, third-party convention minutes and antislavery newspapers, “Neither a Slave nor a King” uses a new analytical framework to reinterpret long-familiar events in the antebellum era. It is a political history which places the antislavery project front and center in the narrative, giving us new insight into the chronology and meaning of sectional conflict in the 1830s and 40s. The short term is given priority over the long durée, as one of the central aims of this study is to capture the interplay between antislavery activists, jurists and politicians as they contributed to the formation of the antislavery project.