James Richards Harris 3rd The Fatal Flaws of the Constitution (DBQ) During the 1850’s, the supreme and absolute Constitution, which had previously seen no topic it couldn’t resolve or illuminate in the eyes of its interpreters, was faced with its toughest, unrelenting foe; the issue of slavery, and the locations that it existed in or was desired to exist in. Ultimately, this issue led to the demise of the Union that had been created under the watchful and guiding eye of the Constitution.
This decade in particular was brimming with the reoccurring argument of whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand into any newly-acquired United States territories. The sectional discord that resulted between the South and the North as a result of this argument ended in secession, disunion, and eventually war. The flaw of the Constitution existed not in its clear and over-comprehensive guidelines for the Union, but rather in its ambiguity over the rarely discussed topic of slavery.
In fact, it was so infrequently discussed because in 1839, Congress had passed a “gag rule” that prohibited any debate about, reading of, printing of, or reference to slavery. There was such a state of ambiguity on the subject that each side, North and South, found the Constitution as both a helpful tool to prove that they were in fact in the right and the other side in the wrong. By 1850 sectional disagreements centering on slavery were straining the bonds of union between the North and South due to the Compromise of 1850 (doc A).
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These tensions became especially acute when congress began to consider whether western lands acquired after the Mexican War would permit slavery under popular sovereignty. In 1849 California requested to enter the Union as a free state. Adding more Free State senators to Congress would destroy the balance between slave and free states that had existed since the Missouri compromise of 1820. The compromise essentially erased the effects of the compromise by allowing the balance of free and slave state to potentially be broken.
The Sectional sentiment that was aroused by the compromise of 1850 is obviously present in a letter from an anonymous Georgian (doc B). In his “plain words for the north”, the Georgian emphasizes that the constitution “recognizes slavery where it exists” and that unless the same view was accepted by the North the destruction, “the destruction of the constitution is inevitable”. However in a document by William Llyod Garrison (doc E), Garrison, an extreme abolitionist whose motto was “no union with slaveholders”, argued that the constitution “never intended to give any protection or countenance to the slave system”.
Thus the question of whether or not the constitution protected slavery arose. Since the framers of the did not explicitly condone or embrace slavery, the decision was left to congress, the president, and the courts to decide. Although salvery was not mentioned in the Constitution, the context of it essentially supports slavery- many of the signers were slave owners. However, northerners such as Emerson (Doc D), who addressed the fugitive slave law, argued that slavery was immoral and foresaw the ending of the Union.
Southerners on the other hand, saw slavery as their naturall right and regarded the three-fifths clause as evidence that slaves did not hold the rights of citizens. Sountherns were aided in their argument by the Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court, which ruled that African Americans had no civil rights, and the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Although the decision was made on the basis of the interpretation of the Constitution, it also reflected the susceptiballity of the court to be influenced by personal views and politics due to the fact that several of the judges were slave owners.
Even though the court decision settled the question of slavery explansion and strengthened the souths position, it irnonically fueled the republican movement after the defeat of the Lecompton constitution to establish equitable voting methods. After Lincolns election South Carolina, which saw secession as the only alternative left to protect their way of life and liberty, challenged federal authority and attempted to coerce other southern states to join them. On February 7, 1871, seven slave states declared independence, joined the confederate states of America and elected Jefferson Davis as president.
In davis’ message to Confederate Congress (Doc H), he expressed his view that the constitution set up a compact between independent states, rather than a national government made up of states. The misconception that the Constitution set up a national government, he said, was the perception of a certain political school in the North. In contrast, Lincolns message (Doc I) questions how the southern states could withdraw from the Union without the consent of the other states.
As these two documents have pointed out, the different interpretations by which the Northerners and Southerners interpreted the Constitution was one of the main sources of sectional discord and tension. Despite efforts at preserving the Union, social and economic forces were pulling the North and South apart. Northern society was beign cultured by the industrial revolution, and by educational and humanitarian movements that had little effect in the South. Southern society was dominated by agriculture, and therefore slavery was a necessary institution and way of life.
Since the North and South were essentially two different societies united under one common law, it seemed inevitable that the conflict over slavery and states rights would arise. It would have been impossible to accommodate the differences between the North and South under one law that applied to both. So while the constitution was originally framed as an instrument of national unity there was no possible way for it not to divide the nation with two entirely different societies. Therefore the only solution to save the union was not to abolish the constitution, but to either abolish or accept slavery.
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