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Dark Bargain – Book Review

DarkBargainby: Goldstone, Lawrence

Publisher: Walker & Company

Copyright: 2005

Cover: Maura Fadden Rosenthal/MSpace

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, May 18, 2006

Summary: Making of the U. S. Constitution and compromises propelling economic and social conflicts. Highly Recommended. 

DARK BARGAIN is a history of the compilation of the U. S. Constitution using the letters, writings and documented speeches of those who participated in putting it together . The full title of the books is DARK BARGAIN: SLAVERY, PROFITS, AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE CONSTITUTION. What the book lacks in drama, it makes up for by offering a controversial supposition.

Goldstone makes a very strong case that the constitution which gave birth to the United States was made from a series of compromises between men with competing and excluding interests. Differences were worked out on a purely political basis. This is the core of DARK BARGIN’s theme. While idealism was the foundation of the goal, the goal itself was suborned to the practicalities of self-interest.

It may be difficult for us to grasp the all embracing grip the issue of slavery had over the men who met in Philadelphia during the months of May through September in 1787. To us today, slavery was all about race. We forget-or perhaps are not aware-that slavery was about economics. Race-the pseudo-science of dividing people into groups-came much later. (See the Public Broadcasting System excellent presentation “Race: The Power of Illusion” at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm ). Slavery has been an institution in some society somewhere since recorded history. In Europe, slavery (with the Irish being the primary slave group) was eradicated and replaced by feudalism and indentured servants by the time the Americas were discovered. Around the time of the constitutional convention, the theory of race was still in its embryonic stage. Racism too was in its embryonic stage. At the constitutional convention, the infrequent references to peoples of “inferior culture”-Blacks and native Americans-is distinct from the “race” concept that would blossom after the American Civil War and continue to the present.

Traditionally, in all the analysis and commentary done of the U. S. Constitution and its history, slavery has always been a peripheral issue, in line behind big versus small states issues, northern states versus southern, merchants of the eastern seaboard versus those of the south. Goldstone effectively presents a different focus. All the other issues were real, requiring real compromises, but totally dependent upon the more fundamental compromise of allowing slavery to co-exist within the framework of a national government in which some were free and others slaves. In a sense, that the compromises were achieved at all, demonstrated just how novel the idea of “individual freedoms” were and how deeply America’s roots sprung from a view of the individual within an economy as opposed to individuals pursuing an economic existence.

While the debate at the constitutional convention frequently mentioned slavery, the word did not appear in the constitution itself until ninety-one years after the debate was over-the thirteenth amendment abolishing the practice. By then, the fundamental compromise was in shambles and over half a million men (620,000) had died to end the debate once and for all.

 

In reading DARK BARGAIN, it is impossible not to be caught up in prognosticating from the hindsight of history. Prognosticating is one of the joys of studying what has gone before, though perhaps rather self-indulgent. Goldstone’s concise presentation of the words of those who participated in the convention in the State House in Philadelphia in 1787 facilitates, almost demands, that the reader re-examine the issues raised. The American constitutional convention, like the European Congress of Vienna held in Vienna, Austria, from September 1814 to June 1815, is tailor made for unraveling the missteps and conflicts which followed.

This is an excellent book and is highly recommended.

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