Popular Sovereignty or Prohibition on Slavery in Territories Constitutional?

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    I’ve studied pretty in depth the arguments for the right of secession. I’ve been trying to figure out why in the world so many in the North felt that Southerners were traitors and why, despite what seems like pretty overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they felt that secession was unconstitutional.

    So, I began by reading Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In it, he says, “May Congress prohibit slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.”

    Since the secessionists viewed the restriction of slavery in the territories as an unconstitutional affront to the Tenth Amendment and a breach of the compact worthy of rescission/secession, I’m wondering if you know of any founding era sources that would shed light on whether popular sovereignty was provided for during ratification, or whether the founders acknowledged the Federal authority to prohibit slavery(or impose other restrictions on incoming states) outside of where it existed.

    Is there anything in the record that would justify Congress refusing to admit slave states into the Union?

    What is the rebuttal using constitutional history for Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech about this topic?

    Is it true that there was no clear answer to this question, and that therefore it had to be decided by bloodshed? What should we make of Lincoln’s claim that such attempts were permissible in light of the Northwest Ordinance?

    Thank you,

    John Winters
    -Ithaca, NY


    There isn’t anything in the ratification materials indicating that Congress could not exclude slavery from territories under the Territories Clause if it wanted to. However, during the Missouri Crisis, former president Jefferson argued that the principle of new-state equality established by the Northwest Ordinance meant that new states must be left power to decide this question for themselves, as the old states had done.

    Federalists at the Virginia Ratification Convention expressly told the Convention that in case Virginia ratified the Constitution, it would have a right to secede. Besides the appropriate lectures of relevant Liberty Classroom courses, you can find information on these questions in chapter 1 of my latest book, Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary–A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America. http://kevingutzman.com/books/books.html

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