Rule of Law

Remembering the Civil War in the Tea Party Age

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address as president of the United States. While many Americans remember the Gettysburg Address, or even Lincoln’s second inaugural — both of which are inscribed inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC — fewer are likely to remember his first address to the nation as President. There is a reason for that. The speech is worse than uninspiring — in fact, it includes Lincoln’s endorsement of a then-proposed 13th Amendment that would have fully enshrined slavery in our nation’s Constitution.

In the current age of Tea Party nostalgia for our “original” Constitution, coupled with calls for state secession and nullification of federal laws, our nation’s history in the immediate pre-civil War period is a useful reminder of the “more perfect union” we live in today. No one should “celebrate” a war that took such a horrible toll in American lives. But as the nation marks the sesquicentennial of beginning of that War, we should remember what the Civil War was all about.

Today, the 13th Amendment is an inspiring affirmation of freedom, declaring that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But that inspiring Amendment was not on the table in February 1861. Instead, in his first inaugural address, President Lincoln and others sought to avoid the Civil War, in part, by further enshrining slavery in our nation’s charter. A 13th Amendment proposed by Congress in 1860, and supported by President Lincoln, would have read, in part: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will… abolish or interfere, within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state.”

Though a life-long critic of slavery, even Lincoln was willing to accept this horrifying addition to our Constitution if it meant the preservation of our beloved Union. Yet even the promise of adoption of such an Amendment was not sufficient to bring states like South Carolina, which had seceded in late 1860, back into the Union, and war soon broke out.

It was only after the war, and the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, that the ratification of the 13th Amendment we have today became a possibility. President Lincoln worked hard for the Amendment’s passage in Congress and celebrated it as a “King’s cure” for the evil of slavery that paved the way for “the reunion of all the states perfected and so effected as to remove all causes of disturbance in the future.” In the next five years, the nation also ratified the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to everyone born in this country and broadly protecting both liberty and equality and the 15th Amendment, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting rights. All three of these Amendments grant the federal government sweeping power to enforce their respective provisions through “appropriate” legislation.

To this day, there is debate in this nation about whether the Confederacy was fighting mainly over slavery or states’ rights, with the suggestion that the latter was the true, noble, cause of the Confederacy. Increasingly over the past year, Tea Party-infused politicians have been making arguments about nullification and secession, acting almost as if the Confederacy had prevailed on its states’ rights plank. The reality is that the Civil War was about both slavery and states’ rights, and that in its aftermath, the Constitution was changed to reflect the Union’s victory on both counts. Subsequent Amendments ratified during the Progressive Era further augmented the powers of the national government, granting vast authority to tax and spend for the general welfare and providing for election by U.S. Senators by the people, not state legislatures.

These changes to our nation’s charter paved the way for the United States to claw out of the Great Depression, fight on the winning side of two World Wars, and emerge in the aftermath of World War II as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in world history. It is our Constitution today, our whole Constitution including the 27 Amendments adopted over the past 220 years, which has made the United States the “exceptional” nation it is. In the debates ahead, conservatives and liberals alike should celebrate the Constitution of our time, not yearn for days long past when our Constitution, and our Union, were far less perfect.

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