The Constitutional Origins of the American Civil War
by Michael Conlin
In the last year of the Civil War, Lincoln publicly reflected in his second inaugural address that both sides "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." In The Constitutional Origins of the American Civil War, the author portrays a legal culture wherein one could just as easily substitute the word "constitution" in Lincoln's ruminations. Conlin shows how the Framers' construction of the United States' not-quite-sacred text made the war foreordained from the foundations of the country.
The discussion of that Constitution's meaning foreshadowed debates still present today. For instance, both slaveholders and abolitionists premised their arguments on competing constitutional rights. For slaveholders, the rights at stake were their alleged property rights in the slaves. For abolitionists, democratic rights related to representation were preeminent. Both North and South could cite the Constitution section by section. The so-called "fugitive slave" clause could be argued to be a proslavery clause of the Constitution, or the fact that it did not use the word slave could lead to an argument that it was an anti-slavery clause. Such examples abound.
Both could point to a Constitution that actually supported their cause because the Constitution was a compromise document. Conlin forces readers to recognize that many of the cherished features of our Constitution, which we point to as foundations of our liberty, were also compromises that ensured slavery could remain in the Union. Checks and balances protected republican government and southern slavery, as did the enforced legislative parity in the Senate. Legislation protecting this balance of power, like the Missouri Compromise, took on nearly constitutional status.
This balance weakened as the country expanded. Immigration from European countries to the North...