Thursday, February 26, 2015

Civil War Book Review's Take on America's Forgotten Constitutions

The Civil War Book Review has published a review of America's Forgotten Constitutions.  Professor Chris Barker finds the book "a very impressive, thought-provoking study of divergent forms of popular sovereignty."  Overall, he deems the historical case studies to be "uniformly insightful and even-handed" with the analysis "largely avoid[ing] clause-by-clause drudgery."

A couple of the reviewer's observations merit a brief response.  First, Professor Barker expresses concern that the account might "invite[] a degree of confusion about the legal status of the union" because I emphasize that the Founding began a project of creating one American political community.  But here I think he misunderstands my approach, which is concerned not with narrow questions of legality as such but with the broader process of making the revolutionary utterly conventional.  I never claim "uniform national citizenship" to be the Founders' original goal.  The Framers themselves used the terms "citizen," "people," and "person," throughout the debates and the resulting Constitution, revealing a desire to create a single political community (nation-state) and not merely a more effective government, while leaving the particulars of legal "citizenship" unresolved and in flux.  So I don't read "the 1787 Constitution as an ideologically dominating, exclusionary document," as Professor Barker suggests, but rather contend that some defenders of the Constitution (liberal nationalists and practitioners of ethical sovereignty) pushed the tradition and the concept of community in a thicker direction after the Founding.

Second, Professor Barker states that I see "no ethically transformative content to the Confederate vision."  This is too strong.  It is true that some slaveholders argued that slavery was a morally worthy institution.  These fire-eaters, whose ideas I discuss in the book, believed in the moral rightness of slavery just as fervently as abolitionists believed the practice to be spiritually bankrupt.  For these popular thinkers, secession represented an opportunity for moral restoration.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the Confederate Constitution: while slavery itself was preserved by that document, many stronger provisions--including those that would help keep the Confederacy pure and perpetual as a slaveholding republicwere rejected.  The moral dimensions of that vision were partially implemented at best.  This is why I ultimately believe that the Confederate Constitution is more aptly described as an example of cultural sovereigntyan exercise of racial nationalism, if you preferrather than an illustration of ethical sovereignty in action.  When we compare the actual features of that Constitution with other constitutions containing stronger religious or other ethical imperatives, it only reinforces the sense that the Confederate Constitution appears remarkably like the 1787 Constitution, with a few provisions altered to restore control over the political economy of slavery.  That American original, too, ended up a thinner exercise in self-governance, despite the fact that some proponents had stronger ideas of justice and virtue.