Assess the validity of the following statement about the Constitution as a source of sectional discord."By the 1850's the Constitution, originally framed as an instrument of national unity had...
Assess the validity of the following statement about the Constitution as a source of sectional discord.
"By the 1850's the Constitution, originally framed as an instrument of national unity had become a a source of sectional discord and tension and ultimately contributed to the failure of the union it had created" using your knowledge of the period of 1850-1861, asess the validity of this statement.
Assessing the validity of the statement included in the student’s question regarding the Constitution of the United States and its success or failure as an instrument of national unity is a matter of perspective. The time frame given, 1850 to 1861, is commonly referred to as the Antebellum period in American history—the period culminating in the outbreak of civil war. It was also characterized by the Compromise of 1850, a series of laws that attempted to bridge the political and cultural divide separating North from South.
This divide had its roots in the nation’s founding. The question of states’ rights was assuming primary importance, slavery being the principal “right.” The first constitution adopted by the United States, the Articles of Confederation, represented a temporary victory for advocates of a weak central government and maximum power distributed among the individual states. The subsequent and final constitution leaned more toward the perspective of northern abolitionist states, prompting passage of the Bill of Rights, which was intended to shift the balance back towards the South.
The question of whether the Constitution failed in its mission of unifying the United States of America puts, perhaps, too much of a historical burden onto that seminal but imperfect document. After all, citizens during this period either accepted the continued practice of slavery or did not. Crafting a compromise between two such disparate positions on an issue of such importance presented a challenge too insurmountable to overcome. One could logically argue that the failure laid not with the Constitution but with the intransigence of a Southern mentality that believed enslaving people as a source of cheap labor was justifiable. The Constitution did not fail; the pervasive influence of deeply racist beliefs brought about the Civil War.
The answer to this question depends in large part on what one means by the "Constitution." If one means the physical document written and ratified from 1787-88, then one might argue that the Constitution failed in the 1850s because it had failed to adequately resolve the issue of slavery when written. But this was because the Framers of the document would never have been able to agree on the basic provisions of the document without certain provisions (like, for example, the Fugitive Slave clause and a 20-year moratorium on restricting the slave trade) that would have weakened the institution.
Slavery was fairly clearly protected under the Constitution—this is why William Lloyd Garrison called it a "covenant with death"—but whether it could be banned in territories was a bit more of an open issue. When Southern states asserted the absolute right to own slaves, and the inability of the federal government to halt its expansion, many Northerners objected. When they began to use the threat of secession to secure concessions from the federal government, taking for themselves an amount of power and influence out of proportion to their representation in the nation's politics, tensions increased. It was not so much a failure of the Constitution as the insistence of the slaveholding states on slavery as an absolute right that drove the crisis of the 1850s and ultimately tore the country apart. This same insistence on protections for slavery existed at the Constitutional Convention, so the idea that the "failure to compromise" led to secession has been widely rejected by historians.
The Constitution had long been a source of conflict amongst the states regarding slavery and a states rights issue. Even during the debates in the Constitutional Convention itself there was a good amount of debate regarding slavery and if the Constitution gave the federal government specific powers over its regulation.
These issues came to a head in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to decide based on popular sovereignty rather than the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Dred Scott case further amplified problems when the Supreme Court that the 5th amendments protection of property applies to slaves, and therefore banning slaves in any territory is unconstitutional. This caused an uproar across the country, because it negated all previous agreements.