Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning


This Liberty Law Talk is with political scientist Justin Dyer on his latest book, Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2013). In debates over the legality of abortion common opinion has focused on the connections between the legal treatment of slavery in the nineteenth century and the contemporary status of abortion as a fundamental right. Dyer takes this debate as his starting point but goes much deeper by showing the layers of constitutional, political, and philosophical meaning linking slavery and abortion in the American experience. This conversation covers the ground of the Dred Scott opinion, the 14th Amendment and its privileges or immunities and due process clauses, abortion and the common law, the historical legal record the Roe Court relied on, and Rawlsian public reason as a legitimating authority for political debate.

Justin Buckley Dyer

Justin Buckley Dyer is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and the editor of American Soul: The Contested Legacy of the Declaration of Independence (2012).

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  1. dr. james willingham says

    Sirs: While we are thinking and talking as if slavery was passé in the good ole’ USA, the truth seems to be otherwise. A friend was telling me that he was reading the NC labor laws and that they stated an employer a few minutes before the end of the shift could ask a worker to work another 8 hr. shift, and there was no limits on how many times one could do such. Also the only persons covered with a guaranteed lunch period of 30 minutes were those ages 16 and under. And then he found out, when he was demoted after good work reviews, that he had no recourse, neither in the state nor in the EEOC. Add to the problems above the workers who are just barely surviving on minimum wages and where the incentives are enforced with penalties and the multitudes of people who are either underemployed or, worst of all, altogether unemployed along with the threats of financial collapse, and you have the makings of a situation that can deteriorate to a chaotic civil war whereby the millions of “useless eaters” can be exterminated for the temerity of trying to get food at the price of strong arm methods or stealing.

  2. David Upham says

    Excellent. One disagreement: I don’t think you use the expression “substantive due process” with any precision. It’s not, of course, a term used by those who concluded that a law declaring previously lawful property contraband, and criminalizing its possession (whether slave-property or intoxicating liquors) was a deprivation of property without due process of law. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the objection is with the process–the failure to assess any individual liability that should lead to the loss of property?

  3. says

    Regarding Dr. Willinham’s comments, I am somewhat surprised that educated people still believe that people, by the very fact of their existence, have a RIGHT to a job, and someone, perhaps a friend of mine currently working on the subject, should put an end to the “Myth of Unemployment.” The reality is this: There is no such thing as “unemployment;” a person either works for someone else, on mutually agreed terms, or he defaults to the “self-employment” condition. In the latter instance, he may not have the best boss or get paid what he assumes he is worth, being a bit biased under the circumstances. If an employer asks an employee to work overtime or an extra shift, that’s his prerogative; I think it rare that an employer would ORDER such overtime on penalty of dismissal, but in the end, in a free market (which we have not seen in almost two hundred years), these decisions should only be made by employee and employer–not government rules and regulations. Don’t give me this bleeding heart stuff about uncaring and greedy businessmen–that dog really won’t hunt logically or economically, it always being in the best interest of an employer to keep his employees happy and productive. On the other side, I think MOST employees are willing to help out with extra effort or time when the company, for whom they work and depend on for their livilihoods, is in a squeeze and needs help. It would be sheer folly to refuse that reasonable request even if it requires temporary sacrifice. The bottom line: work in accordance with the employer’s direction, seek another employer, or work for yourself. It’s really that simple.

    Government causes “unemployment,” or default”self-employment.

    Keep government out of business and labor relations, fire most of the bureaucratic “Parasite Class,” and free up the imaginations, abilities, and free enterprise spirit, of the American people and you will see an economic explosion in this former great Republic like the world has never seen.


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