Crisis of Constitutional Government

Overview

At the heart of the American constitutional crisis of the mid-nineteenth century stood the moral, social, and political evil of slavery. At stake in this crisis was the future of republican self-government.

Abraham Lincoln saw the dilemma facing the nation as the “crisis of a house divided.” While the American Founders worked to put slavery, as Lincoln said, “on the course of ultimate extinction,” the institution had instead flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, efforts to expand slavery threatened to tear the nation apart.

Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas championed the idea that Americans living in the territories should choose whether or not slavery should be legal there. “Popular sovereignty” eventually became the law of the land with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

For Lincoln, “popular sovereignty” was an abandonment of moral principle. Man does not have a moral right to choose a moral wrong. Self-government cannot mean ruling other human beings without their consent. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, although disguised in the language of liberty and self-government, was in fact at odds with the core principles of the American regime.

The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision marked a further departure from the principles of the American Founding. Writing for the majority in 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that the Founders never intended for the principles of natural right enunciated in the Declaration to apply to blacks—whether enslaved or emancipated. Furthermore, Congress had no right to ban slavery in the territories. For Lincoln and the opponents of slavery, this decision was not only constitutionally and historically wrong, but it also further enabled the legal expansion of slavery nationwide.

Lincoln and Douglas debated both popular sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision in their Illinois Senate race of 1858. Douglas maintained that self-government and slavery were compatible and mutually beneficial in certain climates, and it was up to the majority of citizens to determine whether or not the conditions prevailing in their territory or state made slavery useful. Lincoln countered that republicanism and slavery could never exist in harmony, and that self-government could never be compatible with the denial of consent. America, he held, could not long exist half slave and half free; it must become one or the other.

 

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