Timothy Huebner’s Liberty and Union provides a rich and insightful account that ties the events of antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction America back to questions of slavery and sovereignty left unresolved by the Revolutionary generation. Rather than focusing narrowly on particular questions or moments, Huebner offers a comprehensive narrative of events seen through a constitutional lens. What this approach may lose in analytical depth, it more than makes up for in breadth and accessibility.
Huebner contends convincingly that a shared “culture of constitutionalism” led all Americans to revere and rely on the nation’s founding documents, even while they disagreed profoundly on the principles they embodied (p. xi). During the antebellum years, the South gradually coalesced around the vision of a proslavery Union rooted in state sovereignty, epitomized by the theories of John C. Calhoun and the judicial practice of Judge Roger B. Taney. The North, meanwhile, propelled by moderates like Abraham Lincoln as well as white abolitionists and black activists, increasingly believed that sovereignty lay in the people as represented in the national government and that slavery transgressed against the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. But, while many felt constitutionally entitled to limit slavery’s spread, virtually all northerners still accepted legal protections for slavery where it already existed.
Parts two and three carefully trace how military, social, and political events combined during the Civil War and Reconstruction to rapidly overhaul Americans’ constitutional thinking. The Union’s victory forever closed debate about the constitutionality of slavery and secession. But this did not signify a lasting embrace of a powerful national government. Ultimately, Radical Republicans struggled to go further and faster during Reconstruction because all Democrats and [End Page 433] many of their Republican colleagues proved unwilling to abandon the traditional prerogatives of the states within a federal system. The “dual federalism” that Huebner argues prevailed had changed the federal-state relationship, but only so much. The concept had been expansive enough to see the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments enshrined in the Constitution but limiting enough to eventually allow Jim Crow to take hold.
The most satisfying dimension of Liberty and Union is the discussion of “black constitutionalism” (p. xii). Drawing on individuals such as Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and Frederick Douglass, as well as lesser-known people, publications, and conventions, Huebner documents how African Americans consistently articulated an inspiring vision of America’s founding values. Black communities relentlessly championed the universality of the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal.” In doing so, they aided in moving this perspective from the extreme fringes of political opinion to mainstream Republican Party dogma. The Republican platform of 1868 explicitly celebrated the principles of the Declaration as the “true foundation of Democratic government,” and two years later President Ulysses S. Grant declared the Fifteenth Amendment to be of “grander importance” than any other measure since the nation’s birth (pp. 381, 366). The federal government had been transformed from protecting “the rights of slaveholders—to the rights of enslaved persons,” and African American activism helped to drive and shape this process at every stage (p. 441).
Huebner’s desire to cover all aspects of his time period has contextual benefits but is still, at times, frustrating. In his coverage of the war years, equal space is given to providing a military narrative of the war as to interrogating politics and constitutionalism in both sections during the conflict. Events on the battlefield undeniably shifted constitutional thinking, but Liberty and Union is still at its most satisfying when it utilizes the author’s strengths in legal history and it is a pity that debates over the suspension of habeas corpus, emancipation, and civil liberties each merit only a few pages of analysis. [End Page 434]
Fluently written and compellingly told, Liberty and Union weds accessibility to expertise. Quotations are kept to a minimum and historiography to the footnotes, but there is no doubting the author’s extensive research and firm grasp of the field. Specialists will...