“If Slavery Is Not Wrong, Nothing Is Wrong”

Could anything be clearer than the Thirteenth Amendment? A model of succinctness, it reads in full:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

From its modest yet revolutionary text some contemporary legal commentators have derived governmental power to address every category or practice that involves a form of discrimination or inequality: racial profiling, poverty, migrant workers, pregnant women (for abortion rights), and more.[1] Such a Thirteenth Amendment might devour the rest of the Constitution, marking the demise of constitutional government that protects individual rights, as any means would be justified to attack every ill that might have some relationship to freedom. The fight to end slavery would have become the fight to end freedom.

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The South Was Right, the Historians Are Wrong: Taking the Antislavery Origins of the Civil War Seriously

Why did the Southern states choose to secede when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860? At the time, Southerners attributed “secession winter” to the fear that Lincoln and the Republicans fully intended to make war on slavery, bypassing the Constitution, which left the issue of slavery to the states. Thus, they believed, their only option was to separate from the Union.

Northern Democrats agreed, contending that Republicans intended to circumvent the Constitution’s prohibition against direct federal action against slavery. Agitation by the “Black Republicans” was responsible for the crisis. The Democrats felt vindicated when Republicans refused to compromise on the extension of slavery into the territories. In addition, the Democrats charged, the Republicans intended to refuse to enforce the fugitive slave law that had been passed in 1850 as part of the Great Compromise.

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Brown v. Harlan

 The 59th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education should recall what that great decision did not do—overturn the racial segregation precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Only by revisiting Justice Harlan’s classic dissent would segregation and Jim Crow in the law be finally overcome. Moreover such a Court opinion in Brown would have given civil rights laws a principled dignity and as well promoted an originalist jurisprudence that both protected individual rights and restrained government. This jurisprudence would be based on the Declaration of Independence.

Indeed, the brief for Homer Plessy argued that “The Declaration of Independence … is not a fable as some of our modern theorists would us believe, but the all-embracing formula of personal rights on which our government is based.” It is the “controlling genius of the American people.” And prior to the Plessy setback, as Charles Lofgren shows in his meticulous The Plessy Case (1987), this argument helped win anti-segregation suits at the state level.

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Lincoln’s Signing of the 13th Amendment

On Facebook, someone criticized the Lincoln movie for inaccuracy on the ground that the President said he wanted to sign the 13th Amendment, but presidents don't sign amendments. But the movie is correct: Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment.  The interesting question is why? I can imagine various reasons.  Here are three possibilities:  First, Lincoln didn’t want to take a chance that the courts would hold his signature was necessary and so signed it out of an abundance of caution; second, Lincoln wanted to affix his name to symbolize his personal connection to the Amendment; third, President Buchanan had signed the proposed Corwin…

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Lincoln: The Movie

I caught Lincoln last night, which I greatly enjoyed.  Spielberg’s directing, Kushner’s writing, and a first rate cast make it a truly enjoyable movie.  One test I have for a movie is how many times I look at my watch.  I have to admit, in a two and a half hour movie, I never looked once.

Of course, it is not surprising that I would love a movie about this period.  For the last several months, much of my work has focused on the 1860s — in particular, the adoption of the 14th Amendment, rather than the movie’s focus on the of the 13th.  Since I don’t know that much about 13th Amendment’s enactment, the big question for me is how much of the film is historically accurate.  Many historians have already weighed in on the question, and one can find the discussions of Kate Mazur, Harold Holzer, and Allen Guelzo, among others at the end of this Wikipedia entry.

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