Sunday, March 11, 2012

Justin Buckley Dyer's "Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition"

Justin Dyer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford’s theory works surprisingly well for Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition. The book argues that the principles of the American founding—exemplified by the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to universal human rights rooted in a natural moral law—were antagonistic to slavery. The tension between the fact of slavery and the natural law principles of the American founding was an important feature of constitutional politics in the nineteenth century, and much of the tension centered on the ways in which the Constitution dealt with slavery. Page 99 of the book puts the reader at the bar of the Supreme Court during John Quincy Adams’s defense of several Africans who found their way to America after killing their captors on the slave ship La Amistad. For those who have read the case (or even watched Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad), the courtroom drama depicted on page 99 will be familiar:
In Adams’s concluding remarks before the Court, he declared, in an untranslated verse from Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘hic caestrus artemque repono.’ Adams’s Latin quotation, taken from the legendary but aged boxer Entellus’s post-fight oration, after his defeat of the brazen and much younger challenger Dares, translated: “In this place I, the victor, put down my gloves and my training.” As Michele Valarie Ronnick points out, however, Adams edited out the word victor. He could not know if victory lay on the horizon, but he did indeed view himself as an old fighter nobly confronting a new challenge. That new challenge was provided by the rising defense of slavery as something good to be preserved and protected rather than a necessary evil to be tolerated; the cornerstone of American democracy rather than the rock upon which it must break. Because of this new challenge, American constitutional disharmony might have found its resolution in favor of slavery as a perpetual and fundamental institution, and the Declaration of Independence was the final obstacle, the last stumbling block, to those forces working toward such a resolution.
Largely because of the theoretical groundwork laid by statesman such as John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and others, the republic did eventually complete the work of the founding by abolishing slavery and guaranteeing certain basic rights to all people. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution—rightly celebrated today—stem from an enduring tradition in American politics that finds its bearings in what the Declaration of Independence simply called the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
Read an excerpt from Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue