The U.S. Constitution is looked upon as not only a legal bond, but as a unifying document that exemplifies the American desire for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” From 1787, the year of its creation, until 1850, the Constitution helped to uphold these ideals, by ruling with the majority, but protecting the minority, as well as acting as a symbol of unity for the growing nation. In the decade before the Civil War, the Constitution’s openness for wide interpretation as well as its lack of specificity on sectional issues such as states’ rights and slavery led to the eventual disunion and the Southern secession.
For over 60 years prior to the Civil War, the Constitution was able to unify the Nation. After the Democrat-Republicans swept the Federalists of their offices in the Revolution of 1800, the Federalists, in their respect for the rule of the majority (as upheld in the Constitution) accepted defeat and left their positions peacefully (Amsco). After Jefferson was elected in 1800, he went on to purchase land through a treaty with France in the Louisiana Purchase (1804) and doubled the size of the United States (Divine). This action, although barely, followed the Constitution in the executive rights it grants, and helped to unify the nation by increasing territory, nationalism and the spread of democracy. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall instituted judicial review, which could override decisions brought about by Congress; he then used this power to institute supremacy of the federal government above the state governments, as in McCulloch v. Maryland.
In leaving room for interpretation, the Constitution led many Northern abolitionists to believe it did not do enough to prevent the expansion, promotion and existence of slavery. The Free-Soilers felt the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the Compromise of 1850, as well as Lewis Cass’ “popular sovereignty,” was forcing slavery upon them . The right to peaceful demonstration is protected by the Bill of Rights, however, this led to the abolitionists encouraging violence and opposition to local police forces after the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted . The Union was further threatened because many Northerners felt that the Constitution broke moral and religious ideals in its support of slavery, and some even advocated disunion. The confusion over slavery stems from a larger confusion over independent state rights, which some Northerners, like Abraham Lincoln, believed didn’t exist at all.
The Constitution’s lack of specificity on sectional matters also led Southerners to believe that it did not protect their own rights and interests. The U.S. Constitution foes not recognize or advocate slavery, thus many Southerners felt that as the minority in the country (Lincoln was able to be elected without one electoral vote from the South) their rights were in danger of being violated. The theory of “popular sovereignty,” a favored one in the south, which gave new territories their right to choose whether to allow slavery also led to disunity, as it placed states rights above federal laws and statutes.
Furthermore, the South believed the Constitution to be a compact between states, as opposed to a federal government of higher power than those of the states, and thus, they felt that if this compact was broken, Southern states could secede legally and peacefully. Before secession, the South even attempted to exert their power as states within a union, and did so by stating that unless an amendment was added to the Constitution which formalized the legality of slavery the South would leave the Union
The Constitution has been considered genius because it is simply a series of compromises that make it acceptable to many. However, its vagueness, which has allowed it to mutate and take new form for almost 250 years, has also led to many disputes about its interpretation. The main constitutional concern in the years before the Civil War is whether or not states could invalidate acts of the federal government, an issue which was laid to rest in April, 1865, when the North’s victory over the South proved the might of centralized power.
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