- Liberty and Union: The Civil War and American Constitutionalism by Timothy S. Huebner
In Liberty and Union: The Civil War and American Constitutionalism, Timothy S. Huebner joins three historiographical currents: U.S. constitutional history, the history of the U.S. Civil War, and African American history. Huebner argues that Americans venerated the founding generation and the Constitution yet differing interpretations sparked political debates and led to hostilities. He writes that many white Americans in the slaveholding states believed that the founders placed individual liberties, particularly the right to hold slaves, at the heart of the Constitution. In the northern states, many elevated the Union as the most central tenet of the Constitution. Articulating distinct ideas about the founding document, African Americans exercised what Huebner dubs "black constitutionalism," petitioning for rights and abolition rather than breaking from white society and prominent political methods. Huebner lucidly describes the constitutional issues that remained unresolved during the first half of the nineteenth century. He contends that the tension between liberty and union, along with the irreconcilable views over black bondage, animated the political debates and, in 1861, converged in war. [End Page 434]
Huebner divides the narrative that stretches from the 1840s through Reconstruction in three parts. Part 1 explores the major political and constitutional problems—especially the issues of sovereignty, slavery, and liberty—that went unresolved during the framing of the Constitution and precipitated heated debates, which he shows contributed to the eruption of war. Part 2 is a synthesis of military, political, and social history of the war, emphasizing political disputes, military campaigns, and the lingering questions around the prominent legal and constitutional problems. Part 3 narrates the fallout of war, revealing how the antebellum constitutional problems influenced the postwar political structure and, in part, fostered the reemergence of white supremacy after abolition.
In addition to untangling intricate constitutional arguments by placing them in historical context, Liberty and Union is an important contribution because Huebner enhances our understanding of African American participation in politics and the war. Adding to a growing body of scholarship detailing African Americans' advocacy throughout the nineteenth century, Huebner demonstrates African Americans engaging in questions about the meaning of the Constitution and accepting democratic discourse and legal reasoning as weapons to combat slavery and white supremacy. Huebner stresses that while African Americans could have resorted to violence, advocated for separation from white society, or supported emigrationism, they employed "black constitutionalism," for "the dominant position within the black community was to claim all that they thought they deserved as Americans" through constitutional arguments (xii).
While making a persuasive case for black constitutionalism, Huebner clumps African Americans who chose to follow different paths to freedom with "black constitutionalists" and thus moderates more radical positions many African Americans took. Huebner writes that "African Americans in the South remained true to the prewar black constitutional tradition by heading to Union lines or contraband camps, enlisting in the Union army, petitioning their government, and organizing themselves to advocate for freedom and rights" (322). However, many African Americans also rejected popular political structures and resisted slavery; white supremacy; and the intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender beyond the scope of democratic politics. As W. E. B. Du Bois frames it in Black Reconstruction (1935), slaves went on a "general strike." They revolted too, making the war, as Steven Hahn writes in The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (2009), "the greatest [slave rebellion] of them all" (97). And Thavolia Glymph reveals how enslaved women broke the gender conventions of soldiering and fought for liberation as "stateless" actors (See her article "Rose's War and the Gendered Politics of a Slave Insurgency in the Civil War," Journal of the Civil War Era 3 [Dec. 2013]: 501–32).
By accounting for the men and women who adopted alternative means of resistance, Huebner's contribution is clearer. In Liberty and Union, Huebner provides a discussion of an influential strain of black activists, activists who engaged in debates about what the Constitution meant and...