U.S. History, Meet the Present

by | Jun 11, 2014 | News

There’s no shortage of innocent assumptions, sneering one-liners, pseudohistory, off-topic diversions and mindless loops regarding the causes and conduct of the Civil War. If you’ve had enough of that cheap beer, then buy, borrow or check out Daniel A. Farber’s “Lincoln’s Constitution” (University of Chicago Press, 2003) for a restorative shot of history, straight up.
The book is no screed, and is provocative only if you feel provoked when a sea of scholarship doesn’t part to give your pet notions unimpeded passage.
Farber, a constitutional expert, lawyer and educator with credentials down to here, didn’t set out to vindicate Lincoln’s every move. Nor does he. The Great Emancipator takes his lumps along with everybody else in this methodical but readable sorting-out.
Lincoln comes off well, though, for reasons that are not merely solid, but self-evident. The Great Emancipator, for instance, didn’t start the war, which was there waiting for him when he took office; the bombardment of Fort Sumter was neither the first barrage nor the first act of insurrection. But, as Farber notes, what matters more than grading Lincoln’s performance in the 19th century is learning what that history can teach us about our own tumultuous time, a time in which people toss around words like “federalism,” “sovereignty” (not found in the Constitution) and “militia” as if they actuallly understood them in their American context.
 A few self-evident things:
  • The Constitution explicitly forbids both insurrections and confederations among states. It therefore defies logic to invoke the Constitution in defense of rebellion or confederation.
  • Many people and no few states assumed they had a right to break away, given sufficient provocation. But for most, that meant oppression of the type visited on the Colonies by the British Parliament and King George III — not the political outlook for slavery in Western lands, all of them years from statehood.
  • The United States is not a suicide pact, its very existence left, from one day to the next, to the whim of its most cantankerous or least steadfast member. Whose Constitution is it, anyway? By whose authority and in whose name did it become the legal foundation of a system extending to the remotest boundary of U.S. jurisdiction? Was it the authority of each state in a wispy confederation no more resilient or effective than the one it replaced in 1787? Or did “We, the people” of a nation called the United States ordain it in pursuit of “a more perfect union”? The answer is as plain as the language of the Preamble.
  • The Constitution gives the president no authority to assent to a rebellion or to cede military and other federal properties to states that unilaterally declare the Union void. He is not at liberty to do nothing when rebels shell U.S. forts or seize U.S. arsenals — even if they send a commission to offer peace in exchange for his blessing on crimes already committed and on their continuing attempt to sunder what he took an oath, prescribed in the Constitution itself, to “preserve, protect and defend.”
On and on it goes — sometimes, as noted, with the president on the business end of Farber’s engaging yet unsparing analysis.
Lincoln often got out ahead of Congress, although no constitutional crises ensued because Congress, in one way or another, ultimately backed his play. A few times, Lincoln veered completely out of bounds, treating as dangerous criminals people more aptly described as bitter political aversaries. But object lessons have value, too.
There are many good books on secession and its consequences — books that turn the subject this way and that, catching the light of understanding in useful ways. Farber’s book, which neither rails nor fawns, stands apart. It’s a resource as valuable for the depth of its research as for the clarity of its writing. If you’re beginning to suspect that you’re a U.S. history buff, “Lincoln’s Constitution” offers a good starting point.

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