Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part VI: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity
This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, and Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes.
Historian Gabor S. Boritt asserts that the American Constitution’s “fundamental ambiguity” on a number of matters involving slavery contributed to the sectional controversy that stimulated the growing conflict between the North and the South.[i] The document was vague on the status of slavery in the territories, the power of Congress over the institution in the District of Columbia, whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extended to the slave trade, whether it was a state or federal responsibility to return runaway slaves, and whether Congress could impose conditions on a new state or refuse to admit a new slave state to the Union.[ii] But the most important of these was whether a state had the right to secede from the Union.
Whereas the Articles of Confederation had proclaimed the Union to be perpetual, the Constitution contained no such statement. Indeed, nowhere did it discuss whether a state could secede or not. In the absence of any explicit provision, neither the nationalists nor the secessionists could present a conclusive argument on the subject. In upholding the perpetuity of the Union, Abraham Lincoln conceded that the language of the Constitution was not decisive.[iii]
This didn’t stop either side from finding in these documents justification of their positions.
Topic of the next post: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.
© 2007 L. Rene Tyree
[i] Gabor S. Boritt, “‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came, ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 85; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet.