- Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism by Timothy S. Huebner
More than 150 years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, the Civil War’s influence on today’s racial and political environments continues to be felt. Ongoing controversy over the Confederate flag is just one example of how this country has yet to satisfactorily close what is perhaps its most destructive period. It is in the context of whose constitutional rights should be protected that Timothy Huebner’s Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism seeks to provide a new perspective. This work does not attempt to assign blame or revisit past, or present, racial controversies. Instead, Huebner focuses on the constitutionalism of the Founding Fathers and their ideological influence in the 1850s and 1860s. [End Page 513]
Organized into three sections with eleven reader-friendly chapters, Huebner crafts his argument around the controversy over the overt and implied principles of democracy. He boldly attacks the issue of American slavery in part one and examines the dilemma faced by the Founding Fathers in reconciling the economic, social, and moral justification for slavery with the democratic principles of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The reader will find the examination of John Locke’s influence on Jefferson familiar territory, but skillfully presented in a comfortable prose befitting a talented storyteller.
Part two examines military and political leaders as they prepared for the inevitable conflict. Presidents Lincoln and Davis held firm to their particular interpretations of the Constitution, unable to find common ground. The reader may find the discussions of signature battles (i.e. Bull Run, Shiloh, Manassas, Gettysburg, and Antietam) laborious, but will nonetheless see in their complexities a useful and rewarding discourse.
The influence of the Emancipation Proclamation in shifting focus to the abolition of slavery is refreshing. Too often it seems our society seldom acknowledges the centrality of the slavery question to the war, choosing instead to focus on other factors. Huebner dives into the political impact of the Emancipation Proclamation and pulls no punches when arguing that many questioned the constitutionality of Lincoln’s ideological pivot. Still, Lincoln stood steadfast in his interpretation that slavery was inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution.
An evaluation of Reconstruction and its constitutional precedents is found in the chapters of part three. The narrative of events surrounding the emancipation of slaves and resultant social and economic chaos is well written and engaging. Of particular interest are the events and constitutional wrangling that led to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. The power struggle between the congressional and executive branches illustrates the Founding Fathers’ efforts to prevent the development of a too powerful central government. Additionally, the discussion about black politicians enhances understanding of efforts towards political inclusion, however limited the results may have been.
Undoubtedly, the strength of this text is its documentation and organization. Readers will find the bibliographic essay particularly useful as a launching point for further research. The presentation of historical events and analysis followed by their constitutional relevance offers a perspective seldom seen when discussing constitutional interpretation in the nineteenth century.
Clearly, academics will find Liberty and Union beneficial in multiple disciplines (U.S. history and government being the most obvious). While some analysis and detail may be overwhelming to a casual audience, Liberty and Union will positively affect Civil War and Constitutional literature. [End Page 514] Future generations will continue to debate the impact of the Civil War on American culture and society. Liberty and Union provides a well-needed glimpse into the ideological foundations of the American Republic and the efforts to satisfactorily reconcile the elusive concepts of democracy, liberty, and sovereignty.