Was It a Refounding?

When President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited Independence Hall on his journey to Washington, he asserted straightforwardly: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” This would have come as little surprise to anyone who had followed Lincoln’s public opposition to the policies of Stephen Douglas and the Democrats throughout the mid-to-late 1850s, when he repeatedly invoked “our chart of liberty” and asserted his belief that blacks and whites possessed equality in natural rights. Although he wrote in a draft of his First Inaugural Address that he doubted “that the present Constitution can be improved,” the war ultimately allowed the nation, as he famously proclaimed at Gettysburg, to undergo “a new birth of freedom.” The Reconstruction amendments seemingly signaled as much.

If generations of scholars have contested the meaning of the Civil War, no one questions its momentousness. The 14 essays collected in The Political Thought of the Civil War demonstrate that the conflict fundamentally shaped the American regime, and they probe the important questions of political theory that animated it. Did slavery have a permanent place in the republic? What role did morality play in changing the constitutional order? Could the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence help produce a racially integrated society?

In essence, the book considers whether or not the Civil War and Reconstruction, in eradicating slavery, fulfilled the promises of the American Founding, or to what degree the era instituted novel and superior principles that ultimately signified “a genuine refounding,” in the words of coeditors Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr. in their Introduction. With so many contributors, no definitive answer is ventured here, yet the various avenues of inquiry furnish intellectually stimulating material for students of American history and political science to ponder.

Essays in the first third of the book reveal how the problem of slavery not only bedeviled the Founding Fathers but proved to be the wedge that split the Union. Coeditor Merrill analyzes Thomas Jefferson’s well-known letter to John Holmes on the Missouri crisis through the lens of the Virginian’s natural rights commitments. Caught between doing justice to blacks by allowing them to enjoy their natural right to liberty and securing the self-preservation of Southerners by allowing the latter to pursue their way of life based on extending slavery, Jefferson memorably analogized that the nation was stuck holding the wolf by its ears. According to Merrill, as had been the case in the rough draft of the Declaration—in which Jefferson blamed George III for foisting slavery on the colonies in order to divert moral outrage against its practice—so again in 1820 he sought to use the cloak of natural rights to shield Southerners from moral responsibility for slavery.

After chapters on the antebellum Supreme Court and slavery, the philosophical and political differences that separated the antebellum advocates of natural rights, an overview of various schools of scientific racism, and a survey of Southern politicians who argued for the constitutional validity of secession, the volume’s middle section devotes four essays to Lincoln’s central role in the conflict. In her skillful assessment of Lincoln’s rhetoric in his 1854 Peoria address and reaction to the 1857 Dred Scott decision, both of which contain passages supporting colonization that are difficult for modern readers to stomach, Diana J. Schaub concludes that Lincoln subtly combatted racial prejudice by linking his contemporaries’ self-interest to a fervent moral opposition to slavery’s spread.

Subsequent essays assert that, as the chief executive, Lincoln took painstaking care to defend and follow the Constitution in making his arguments for war, handling the militia, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Taken together, these chapters reveal a skillful statesman who resisted the temptation to use prerogative power and instead acted in ways that preserved the integrity of the Constitution.

The unit concludes with coeditor Stoner’s excellent comparative analysis of the U.S. and Confederate constitutions. He concludes that the latter, with its preservation of slavery in perpetuity, ultimately repudiated the spirit of the former. However, the Confederate government, in its desire to avoid internal dissent during the war, set up an executive and a legislative branch meant to cooperate more closely than the Founders, with their emphasis on the separation of powers, ever contemplated. In subsequent decades, the secessionists’ commitments to racial supremacy prevailed long after the Confederate defeat, and their imagined unity and opposition to any political dissent lingered like a malaise over Southern society as the postwar Democratic Party produced a “Solid South” without the enforcement of black suffrage.

The final section begins with Michael Zuckert’s incisive analysis of the Reconstruction amendments. He maintains that they completed the original intent of the Constitution’s Framers, particularly James Madison’s proposed amendment to give the national government veto power over state laws. This “corrective federalism” essentially allowed the states to take the reins in governing themselves in most cases but reserved congressional power to intervene when necessary. Congressional debate over the Thirteenth Amendment demonstrates that even Northern Democrats regarded the abolition of slavery as a truly revolutionary development that signaled the national government’s potential capacity to strike down other state laws.

According to Zuckert, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment “undid the cause of the [Constitution’s] incompleteness” by destroying slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment positively secured the rights of citizens by incorporating the Bill of Rights through the Privileges and Immunities Clause. As Congressman John A. Bingham (R-Ohio) recognized, this preserved federalism and showed how the divided powers of state and national government each retained their respective spheres. However, if a state violated a citizen’s rights, it tilted the balance of federalism toward the national government to preserve those rights in the face of state infringement.

Finally, the Fifteenth Amendment, while mandating the constitutional right of African American men to vote, upheld federalism by allowing the states to make categorical restrictions to voting other than race.

The remaining chapters assess aspects of Reconstruction and postwar society. Philip B. Lyons asserts that the Radical Republicans pushed for too much change too quickly and should have learned from the example of Lincoln’s Reconstruction government in Louisiana, with its more gradual approach to securing civil rights and limited black suffrage. Peter C. Myers examines Frederick Douglass’ “moral mission” to realize an integrated society based on equality. The volume closes with Jonathan O’Neill’s survey of the works of post-Reconstruction scholars such as Frank Owsley and other Southern agrarians whose oftentimes valid criticisms of centralized authority, consumerism, and egalitarianism were marred by racist assumptions.

Wide-ranging in scope, The Political Thought of the Civil War will appeal to scholars in political science, history, and legal and constitutional studies. Although particular essays will have varying appeal based on one’s research and teaching interests, each chapter makes insightful observations. Many of the contributions originated as lectures at the Political Theory Institute in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., the institutional home of coeditors Levine and Merrill.

In addition to showcasing fine scholarship, the essays show how that era’s arguments over the core principles of the American political tradition—natural rights, federalism, constitutionalism, justice, and equality—remain relevant today and should inform current political debates. In fact, at a moment when politicians, pundits, and scholars alike argue about birthright citizenship, presidential power, and constitutional contexts, this book is timelier than ever. With the ideals of the Declaration of Independence seemingly constantly attacked and ignorance of the Constitution noticeably prevalent, significant benefits might be gained and catastrophes avoided if the good folks at the Political Theory Institute secured a wide reading for this book among numerous residents of their fine city.

However unlikely this occurrence, anyone who reads this volume will appreciate again the moral conviction and integrity required to preserve the timeless principles of the Founding during the Civil War era. As Lincoln expressed it, with his line-in-the-sand closing at Peoria:

Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.