2 thoughts on “The Constitution at War with Itself

  1. Don’t know how I missed your review of Feldman’s new book. Very much enjoyed the review and am enjoying the book. I take your point that Feldman doesn’t stress the principles available in the Compromise Constitution apart from reaching to the Declaration for a new foundation.

    I think he made a deliberate choice to highlight the compromise nature of the original constitution as reflecting the highest priority of the framers – ensuring that the states wouldn’t go their separate ways (Union) which would have been fatal to the entire project of separation from Britain and independence from undue influence of other powers. And to ensure that Expansion would be by a united sovereign nation rather than separate, potentially competitive, initiatives.

    As Feldman tells the story, those priorities framed the way many (including Lincoln) conceived of the Constitution’s structure and purpose, and led to the other “threads,” as you put it, being of lower priority or ignored when the internal contradictions of the Constitution reared their ugly heads. When the Compromise Constitution could no longer contain those contradictions, it was the South, as you note, that blew up the Compromise and its fundamental purpose.

    So we could say Lincoln arrived with the pieces of a broken constitution already in his hands. The story then turns on what Lincoln came to believe was necessary for legitimacy of what would come next. The lawyer in him was attached to protecting continuity while presented with challenges that required action by necessity. But a post-war polity couldn’t survive by ongoing exercise of arbitrary power. So we get a new founding, with a new raison d’être for the nation and its constitution – liberty, equality and justice.

    I read Feldman’s choice to characterize the original constitution as a Compromise from the outset as a way to respond to those who would ignore or deny how profoundly slavery shaped the form of government and the national purpose. It required “breaking the constitution” by Lincoln to obtain victory in a civil war to then have the scope to fundamentally change the national purpose and provide a new reading of the original constitution

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