CSRRR scholar: The South used Constitution for pro-slavery arguments

Published: March 26th, 2012

Category: News

CSRRR Lecture 2012

Alfred Brophy, Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina, spoke March 21 as the CSRRR spring lecture speaker. He stands here with UF Law Professor Katheryn Russell-Brown. (Photo by Marcela Suter)

By Francie Weinberg
Student writer

Though many Americans view the Constitution as a beacon of freedom, Southerners in the antebellum period used it to justify their actions as slaveholders.

“Our nation’s journey toward freedom was shamefully long,” said Alfred Brophy, Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina. “Southerners believed slavery could not be undone without having to undo all of society.”

Brophy, who was instrumental in getting the University of Alabama to apologize for its participation in slaveholding, presented this and other ideas Wednesday during his lecture, “Slavery, Secession and the Constitution,” during the ninth annual University of Florida Levin College of Law Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations spring lecture.

Brophy tied together the views of prominent Southerners including John C. Calhoun and Thomas Cobb with the pro-slavery actions of universities in the South to prove how they used the Constitution to continue the forced labor system almost a century after the Declaration of Independence.

“They were no longer in the world of Jefferson’s ‘all people are created equal,'” Brophy said. “Southerners had this sense that slavery was a foundation not just of Southern economy but of freedom for white people.”

Through the use of history, philosophy, economics and law, key governmental figures in the South convinced universities, such as Virginia Military Institute, that the Constitution had been perverted by Northerners.

“The Constitution gave the South political power and made abolition of slavery significantly more difficult,” he said. “We should learn about Constitutional culture to understand the close relationship between formal law and its surrounding ideas.”

Brophy said the Constitution, whether interpreted for good or evil, is a central vehicle in understanding both the Civil War and the American experience.

“We have to realize how much Southern advocacy bent a more normal interpretation of the Constitution,” he said. “Only then can we fully understand this struggle in its entirety.”

Brophy’s work includes the books: Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, Race, Reparations, Reconciliation and Reparations Pro and Con, as well as the co-authorship of Integrating Spaces: Poverty Law and Race.

“Through his work he shows not just that race matters but how, for whom and why all of us should care,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations.

Every year the center invites a legal scholar who writes, teaches and researches at the intersections of race, law and justice. Lecturers in years past have included Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law and Professor Robert S. Chang of Seattle University School of Law. The Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations’ objective is to recognize and celebrate scholarship that focuses unblinkingly on race, and to highlight scholars who engage in critical thinking about race. They also strive to feature work that signals new and creative thinking about race and race relations.