Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

A Bibliographical Review

IN THE PAST two decades historians have restored constitutional issues to a prominent place in Civil War and Reconstruction historiography. A century ago orthodox opinion viewed the Civil War preeminently as the result of conflict between the constitutional philosophies of states' rights and federal centralization. In the early twentieth century scholarly interest in social and economic history directed attention away from constitutionally oriented accounts of American history, including the history of the nation's most profound constitutional crisis. Although it expressed the entirely sound proposition that political ideas could not be understood apart from their social context, Civil War historian James G. Randall's assertion in 1926 that no issues were primarily constitutional in nature, and that constitutional and legal history were useful mainly for the light they threw on social history, reflected the decline of the field. Howard K. Beale epitomized this development when he wrote in 1930 that the constitutional arguments of the Civil War era were "pure shams" or "mere justification of practical ends" which determined nothing. Expediency, Beale concluded, was all that mattered in public affairs.

Even as he denied the significance of constitutional questions, however, Beale alluded to a fact that eventually provided the basis for the reassessment of constitutionalism in the Civil War era that has occurred in recent years. Constitutional arguments attracted attention, Beale observed, because "It was a day when constitutional theories were required for all practice." Starting with isolated studies of the Fourteenth Amendment in the late 1930s, constitutional historians have reconsidered the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction from the standpoint

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