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How did the Constitution set the precedent for the Civil War? Essay

Although the Constitution was very effective in its early years, the writers had made the mistake of leaving several important issues open and unresolved such as slavery, ratification, and the conflicts between the North and the South. The Constitution ultimately contributed to the failure of the union because of the issues that were not resolved, and therefore caused controversy in the years leading up to the Civil War. The document was originally formed with the intention of unifying the newly formed United States of America. Since then, the Constitution was effective in protecting the rights and ideals of the people. But later on the Constitution had influenced a split both politically and ideologically between the North and the South. One of the most controversial issues between the North and the South was slavery.

The Constitution only addresses how slaves were to be counted in terms of population, and did not fully settle the idea of slavery. As a result of their avoidance of addressing slavery, it [slavery] became one of the main issues that led to civil war. Over the years slavery was a topic of controversy that was boiling up in the eyes of the North and the South. “In fact, they [the Founding Fathers] did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time.” What Zinn was trying to say was that the Constitution did not pay much attention to slavery and its “fate”. Two writers of the time spoke out against slavery, even though the law made it legal. Ralph Waldo Emerson states in Document D, “An immoral law makes it a man’s duty to break it.” , meaning that just because something is made a law does not make it right, and unable to be changed.

William Lloyd Garrison in Document E states, “The Constitution which subjects them to hopeless bondage is one that we cannot swear to support.” Garrison does not support a Constitution which allows people to be treated as property, and believes that the issue of slavery must be settled. Not addressing the problem of slavery resulted in it being much more difficult to deal with after being ignored for so long. The writers of the Constitution can be blamed for not settling the issue of slavery, and leaving it to grow and expand into the largest cause for the division of the union, and ultimately the Civil War. While slavery is cited as the most common cause of the Civil War, it is believed that there were¬†several other factors involved. In other words, though slavery was the major cause it was certainly not the only cause.

The ratification of the Constitution was also another process which “exposed the emerging political differences of the new nation” and eventually led to Civil War. During this process there was a conflict between Federalists and Anti-Federalist who supported and rejected different things. When discussing about the federal government that the Constitution (Founding Fathers) decided to have, Federalists “not only believed that such an interest did exist, but they were also convinced that it could only be properly fostered and cared for by a strong unitary government” says Elkins in his chapter “The Founding Fathers: Radicals or Conservatives”. On the contrary, the Anti-Federalists believed “that such a government would limit not only the sovereign power of the states but also their own power within those states”

The consequent debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists produced the Bill of Rights, but it certainly did not solve the disagreement between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists since they (Anti-Federalists) were still opposing the federal government, even after the declaration of the Bill of Rights. After the Constitution was adopted by all of the States in 1789, uniting the States into one nation, differences between the States had been worked out through compromises. These differences between the Northern States and the Southern States had become so great that compromise would no longer work.

One of the many debates that there were between the North and the South was the issue of taxes paid on goods brought into this country from foreign countries. This kind of tax is called a tariff. In 1828 Northern businessmen helped get the “Tariff Act” passed. “It raised the prices of manufactured products from Europe which were sold mainly in the South.” The purpose of the law was to encourage the South to buy the North’s products. It angered the Southern people to have to pay more for the goods they wanted from Europe or pay more to get goods from the North. Either way the Southern people were forced to pay more because of the efforts of Northern businessmen. This conflict was not settled at all, since there was no consensus reached by both regions. This added up to the many disagreements¬†that existed between the North and the South, eventually making the Constitution (since it didn’t satisfy all the Americans), set the precedent for the Civil War.

The Constitution is definitely a major reason for the failure of the union. Although it was originally constructed as a sign of unity for the United States, it resulted in the disunity and sectional tensions which ultimately led to the Civil War. The document’s unresolved issues of slavery, ratification of the Constitution, and the many conflicts between the North and the South were the main causes for it to lead the country towards the Civil War.


About.com, 2003: Origins of the Civil War Conflicts (December 21, 2003)

Brogan, Hugh: The Penguin History of the United States of America : London: Penguin, 1985

Elkins, Stanley: “The Founding Fathers: Radicals or Conservatives?”

Quint, Howard H., Dean Albertson, Milton Cantor, eds. Main Problems in American History, Vol.1. Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1988.

Harrington, Sandra: Framing of the New Nation.

Honors US History I, Hackensack High School: Hackensack, 2003

Zinn, Howard: “A Kind of Revolution”

A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

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