A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution

By Harold M. Hyman | Go to book overview

Chapter I
Quarrels That the Constitution Shaped

A mericans should have come to the secession winter well armed from experience and well equipped with institutions to deal with the strains involved. Forty years of sectional and party battles had made the secessionist position familiar. Repetitive contentions had resulted in the manufacture southward of heavy political weapons out of the constitutional theory of secession, but Americans had apparently mastered the art of bypassing them.

Great debates about the nature of the Union prepared Americans to argue over secession, but, as events were to prove, not to experience it. The enduring lesson from 1820, 1833, 1850, and 1854 was that secession was a gambit in sophisticated political confrontations that the federal system made possible; a weapon that was not supposed to go off. Until 1860 political palliatives salved the major sectional irritants. Parties continued to operate; democracy and federalism worked well enough. Successes in skirting secession hazards so heightened popular confidence in the nation's constitutional ways and political means that avoidances of confrontations became confused with solutions. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans judged from these successes that nothing in constitutional theory or political action was beyond the capacity of ordinary citizens to master. The rule of law,

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