On July 4, 1854, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison observed Independence Day by burning a copy of the United States Constitution. He was disgusted that the Constitution not only permitted the continued enslavement of 4 million African Americans but also required federal officials to return fugitive slaves to their masters. The gesture earned Garrison both praise and scorn, as did his declaration that the founding document was a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell. ” 1
Today, in an era when burners of the American flag are routinely hauled before the courts, Garrison's destruction of another national icon seems radical in the extreme. The act seems even more poignant when contrasted with today's constitutional politics. When reformers today run into the roadblocks of constitutional provisions, congressional legislation, or judicial decisions, they are much more likely to demand a constitutional amendment than the abandonment of the entire Constitution. Garrison and other abolitionists, however, failed to embrace the amendment alternative.
Ultimately, of course, opponents of slavery did come to regard a constitutional amendment as the best method of ending slavery, but they did so only after the conflict over slavery had erupted into a shooting war. When Congress finally adopted the antislavery amendment in January 1865, Garrison announced that the Constitution, formerly “a covenant with death, ” was now “a covenant with life. ”2 Garrison's praise suggested that the amendment had always been the abolitionists' goal, but, in fact, the measure appeared rather late on the antislavery agenda. Contrary to what abolitionists said after the amendment was adopted, and what historians have accepted ever since, the amendment was never the expected outcome of the conflict over slavery.
Nevertheless, in the years leading up to the Civil War, and in the first years of the war itself, Americans laid the groundwork for an abolition amendment, even if that particular measure had been little contemplated by either the early opponents or champions of slavery. Only the ante____________________