Slavery and the Constitution: from Colonial Slave Codes to the 15th Amendment

November 14-16, 2014


This seminar examines American slavery as a historical reality, an affront to the country's promises of liberty and equality, and a political problem. Students will begin with the introduction of slavery into Jamestown and the development of colonial and (later) state slave laws. But we will focus primarily on how the institution shaped the Constitution and how the Constitution shaped the institution. Participants will examine how the slave clauses in the Constitution came to be there and what they meant. We will trace the federal government's involvement (and sometimes lack of involvement) with the issues of slavery.  And we will explore how the Constitution at first hindered and then finally enabled a speedy resolution to the problem of slavery. The seminar will lay special emphasis on Lincoln's efforts to limit slavery in a manner that was constitutionally permissible.  Finally, students will examine the struggles to adopt the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Seminar Scholars

J. Holt Merchant is professor emeritus of history at Washington and Lee University. Merchant joined W&L’s faculty in 1970 after serving in the U.S. Army from 1961-1967, and since joining W&L, he has taught more than 25 different courses. Among other things, Merchant has served as chair of the department from 1998-2007, marshal of the university and chair of the Committee on Public Functions from 1996-2005 and 2011. Merchant is the author of Laurence M. Keitt: South Carolina Fire-eater and co-editor of Finishing With a Flourish; has been a reviewer of books, newspapers and professional journals as well as referee of articles for professional journals; and has been a participant and advisor on films about Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Merchant served as both editor and consultant on a number of books. Merchant received his B.A. from Washington and Lee University and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.


Lynn Uzzell, PhD, received her doctorate in politics at the University of Dallas and her bachelors degree at Black Hills State University. Dr. Uzzell   has taught extensively about the Constitution and is an expert on the Constitutional Convention. She has taught political philosophy, American politics, rhetoric, and Leadership and the Humanities at Baylor University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Richmond. She is currently Scholar in Residence at the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and senior editor of ConText, an online resource for Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention.