State Suicide Theory

Author:William M. Wiecek

Page 2520

Massachusetts Senator CHARLES SUMNER, like most abolitionists and all Republicans before the Civil War, believed that the federal government lacked constitutional power to abolish slavery in the states. By early 1862, however, he and some other Republicans sought a theoretical basis for the exercise of congressional authority to govern occupied areas of the Confederacy and to eliminate slavery there. While other Republicans flirted with theories of territorialization or the CONQUERED PROVINCES concept of Representative THADDEUS STEVENS, Sumner developed his own unique amalgam of constitutional ideas for RECONSTRUCTION, which came to be known as the state suicide theory.

Sumner believed that the Confederate states, by seceding, had committed a sort of constitutional suicide, dissolving their "peculiar local institutions" (that is, slavery) and leaving their territory and inhabitants to be governed by Congress. This conception derived from three constitutional sources. The idea that the seceded states had reverted to the condition of TERRITORIES was widely discussed among Republicans after the outbreak of war. The belief that slavery, because it required positive law for its existence, would expire when that law expired, was derived from implications of the doctrine of SOMERSET ' SCASE (1772) and had appeared in abolitionists' constitutional arguments before the war. Abolitionists also found a basis of congressional power to govern the states (including the power to abolish slavery there) in the clause of Article IV, section 4, that requires the United States to guarantee a REPUBLICAN FORM OF GOVERNMENT to each of the states. (See ABOLITIONIST CONSTITUTIONAL THEORY.)

Democrats, conservatives, and even moderate Republicans


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