Role of the Constitution During the Civil War
By
Kelly Snell

        During the Antebellum years the US constitution was used to provide justification for both the abolition and expansion of slavery. The South found justification and a means of preservation for their long established "peculiar institution" by interpreting the constitution in favor of slavery. Radical abolitionists made several of their own constitutional interpretations that not only supported but also provided a means for abolition. This powerful document was not just subjected to various interpretations but also was used as a proverbial club for both Northern and Southern politicians to beat each other with.
        Yeoman and plantation lords alike were confident that their juries and legislators had their best interests at heart and would do all perceivable to uphold their rights of mastery over slaves and legitimize their interpretations of the constitution (Clinton & Silber, Divided, 36) . When anti-slavery propaganda began to flood into the South a presidential ban was implemented on such mailings. Out of fear that this would promote a federal police power capable of also putting a ban on slavery Southern legislators called for its repeal as it was unconstitutional. Through this action one can clearly see the importance of, and respect for, constitutional limitations (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 302). While sacrificing censorship, even in their favor, legislatures were affirming the authority of the constitution through out the union, and now would seek to use it to their advantage. In 1850 when an act was passed guarantying the return of lost or stolen property, slaves, the south now believed that they had a precedent for constitutional recognition of their beloved institution. (Fehrenbacher, Fugitive, 231). The enactment of any law protecting the individual's rights of investment was seen as the constitutional responsibilities of the federal government. Now that the south had achieved recognition of their constitutional right to own slaves the roots began to sink in deep. In screaming for the, what was then, broad issue of individual rights guaranteed in the constitution the south was trying to silence the Northern critics and guarantee their mastery over a lesser race (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 322).
        Many radicals, such as Stephen Douglas, interpreted that the constitution established the Union to preserve and provide freedom for all Americans, and the foundation for this ideology was based in their own interpretation of the constitution (Fonner, Free, 139). While there was a general consensus that slavery was "a great wrong" there was, without radical interpretation, a sense of hopelessness in finding a way to abolish it (Fonner, Free 115). With Slavery being linked with polygamy E.R. Hoar demanded that the federal government abolish slavery through out the Union (Fonner, Free, 130). The federal government was bound to the limitations set forth by the founding fathers. Abolitionist interpreters began to discover ways to abolish slavery through constitutional means. The first step was a form of political "Prima Nocte." By putting pressure on the South, through favoring political appointments of non slave holders, the north hoped to impregnate the federal government with like minded interpreters of their hallowed document (Fonner, Free, 117). Another strategy came through Fredrick Douglas's turning the same sections claimed to support slavery into abolitionist support through his own interpretation, cutting the ties of slavery to the hallowed document. It was article IV section 4 that required the federal government to protect the states against invasion and domestic violence, to include the soon to come civil war. Douglas claimed that the government could achieve this task, quite efficiently so, by proclaiming emancipation (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 299). In the unlikely event that a revolt was to arise the government did poses the power to halt the spread of slavery to its new federal territories. The belief was that in order for slavery to survive it must be allowed to spread, like a true cancer (Fonner, Free, 116-118). Yet there existed another approach provided by northern constitutional interpretation. Due to a political understanding, anti-slavery literature was allowed to sit in southern post offices, never to be delivered. Northerners screamed at the injustices of this as it was an obvious violation of the individual's rights guaranteed by the founding fathers. With the election of Lincoln the Chicago Democrat declared that the Southern censorship could no longer be tolerated. In a sense the North could then sway the Southerners towards their interpretation of the constitution through the constitution itself. By clinging to the idea of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness the north was attempting to use the constitution as leverage to bring the south in line with their own values and ideology (Fonner, Free, 122-123).
        As both sides struggled to impose their own views of the constitution upon their masses, many northern politicians found ways to spite the south through their own radical understandings. Sour feelings developed after the Kansas-Nebraska act, which allowed for an extension of slavery. In response to the act, just one week after it was passed, Wisconsin repealed the "disgraceful", "Slave catching act of 1850."Following the lead of Wisconsin the six New England states approved an act to protect the life and liberties of America's people. Through this sudden and rapid interpretation, fueled by spite, the "Slave catching act" was deemed unconstitutional (Fehrenbacher, Fugitive, 235-238). As the North kept chipping away at the South's right to slavery the South took on a rather ironic switch. In response to the New England's states repeal of the fugitive slave act the south claimed that state governments were assuming authority that it didn't poses, it was a federal matter. In another ironic twist the North claimed support for states right to make its own polices. When considering the events soon to come this is an almost comical scenario (Fehrenbacher, Fugitive, 241).
        In the Antebellum years both pro and anti-slavery advocates seemed to, almost, be shopping for answers. Southern property rights were assured by their political interpretations, Northern "fire breathers" were assuring their masses that it was their constitutional interpretations that would prevail. While batting each other about with acts and repeals, all based on different interpretations of the same text, the nation was slowly being steered towards disaster. There is again a great irony to be found in this struggle; it seems that the very same document that created our great nation also nearly destroyed it.

Fehrenbacher, D. E. The fugitive slave problem from 1850 to 1864. In The Slaveholding Republic, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Fonner, Eric. Free Soil Free Labor Free Men. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
Silber Nina & Clinton, Catherune. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War: New York: Oxford University Press,1992

This page published 12/11/04

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