The Compact: The Proslavery Origins of the Modern US Constitution


ACLS Fellowship Program


Political Studies


Constitutional debates in the United States are characterized by a return to the founding in an effort to recapture the spirit and meaning of that moment. This project challenges that framework by showing the ways in which text and spirit were largely interchangeable during the early US republic until abolitionism in the 1830s forced a decisive appeal to spirit on the part of slaveholders. Focusing particularly on the debates surrounding the 1836 election and the issue of slavery in the District of Columbia, the research traces the manner in which a “spirit of compact” was mobilized within proslavery constitutional interpretation in order to address abolitionist pressures. Victorious in their campaign to safeguard slavery in DC, advocates of this approach established a mode of constitutional interpretation that has become prevalent in modern constitutionalism.