The broken constitution Lincoln, slavery, and the refounding of America

Noah Feldman, 1970-

Book - 2021

"An innovative account of Abraham Lincoln, constitutional thinker and doer"--

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New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021.
First edition
Physical Description
368 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Noah Feldman, 1970- (author)
  • The compromise constitution
  • The breaking constitution
  • The choice of war
  • Political prisoners
  • Emancipation and morals.
Review by Booklist Review

As Feldman (The Three Lives of James Madison, 2017) charts the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's views of the American Constitution, he asserts that America has had two constitutions. The first was a compromise, from its ratification until the Civil War, preserving slavery and helping the new nation expand westward. Southerners bent the Constitution by exacting concessions that allowed the expansion of slavery, then broke the agreement when they left the union after Lincoln became president. When Lincoln responded by mobilizing troops, suspending habeas corpus, censoring news, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he redefined the Constitution in ways never considered before. The proclamation turned the Constitution into a moral document ending slavery and emphasizing human rights. Feldman's focus on Lincoln's evolving legal views reveals a Lincoln not evident in such books as Team of Rivals (2005). Vignettes about slavery, the negotiators of the compromises, abolitionists, the Civil War, and beyond offer context for Feldman's innovative legal analysis. In describing interactions among political groups, voting rights, diverse views of abolitionists, suspending habeas corpus, and censorship, Feldman offers insights strikingly relevant to today's politics.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Harvard law professor Feldman (The Arab Winter) analyzes in this probing study how Abraham Lincoln, in justifying the Civil War and signing the Emancipation Proclamation, transformed the Constitution from "a compromise that preserved slavery" to a "moral compact--a higher law that embodies an ideal form of government." Even as he wrestled with his own contradictory beliefs that civil war was necessary to preserve the Union, and that slavery "was enshrined in the Constitution," Feldman writes, Lincoln embarked on a mission to convince his Cabinet and Congress that emancipating enslaved human beings would not shatter the Constitution. His efforts to decouple the Constitution from slavery began with war measures that suspended habeas corpus, permitted the enlistment of African Americans in state militias, and prohibited escaped slaves from being returned to their Confederate owners. Feldman also examines how Lincoln crafted public pronouncements such as the Gettysburg Address with a view toward preparing whites in the North and slaveholders in the Confederacy for emancipation, and discusses how 20th-century leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. furthered Lincoln's project of redeeming the country from its original sin. Though the wealth of detail on Lincoln's life and travels bogs down the narrative somewhat, this is an astute and eye-opening look at an underexamined aspect of the quest to end slavery. Agent: Andrew Gallo, ICM Partners. (Nov.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

President Abraham Lincoln dramatically reformed the Constitution upending the series of compromises put into place since the Revolution. The Constitution maintained the Union through a balance of power between free and slaveholding states. Feldman's (law, Harvard Univ.; Scorpions) provocative constitutional history demonstrates how Lincoln radically reinterpreted the Constitution, paving the way for the destruction of slavery. Feldman contends that three key decisions, made by Lincoln without congressional input and often contrary to the law, allowed the president to reform the Constitution unilaterally. First, Lincoln went to war to coerce the seceded states back into the Union. Second, he suspended Habeas Corpus and imprisoned opponents of the Civil War, which effectively made him a constitutional dictator. Lastly, the president was responsible for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that enslaved peoples were now free. Feldman concludes that Lincoln's transformation of the Constitution set in motion a process ongoing to this day, but possibly due to the president's wartime actions. This smartly argued work sheds light on the monumental decisions made by the Lincoln during the Civil War. VERDICT This fresh and new reading of Lincoln's presidency and the Constitution will find a home among readers interested in the Civil War and American constitutional history.--Chad E. Statler, Westlake Porter P.L., Westlake, OH

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

An astute exploration of Abraham Lincoln's legal mind as he wrestled with the pro-slavery compromises of the Constitution--and transformed it. First and foremost, Lincoln was a lawyer. Though he was personally disgusted by slavery--especially after seeing New Orleans' slave markets, the largest in North America, when he was a young man--he grasped that the Constitution protected the institution in order for the states to work together as a union. Feldman, a Harvard law professor, lays out the central compromises of the Founding Fathers, enshrined in the Constitution in order to ensure Southern ratification: the three-fifths provision, protecting slave importation for 20 years, and the fugitive slave law. In his early forays into politics, Lincoln, a devotee of Henry Clay, followed the new Whig Party line that slavery would just fade away. However, as the author shows, the invention of the cotton gin changed all that, fueling the debate over whether new states should be slaveholding or free. Lincoln had to come to terms with this "compromise Constitution" as essentially a tool to facilitate national expansion. Yet the rebellion of the Southern states shattered this uneasy compromise, and as president, Lincoln resolved that the rebels could be coerced back into the Union. "By this logic," writes Feldman, "Lincoln had to break the Constitution in order to fulfill his oath to uphold it." Lincoln's controversial--dictatorial, by some estimations--edicts included the suspension of habeas corpus, censorship of the press, and the freeing of the slaves. Feldman offers an elucidating look into Lincoln's incremental thinking, neatly demonstrating how he articulated the "before" and "after" Constitution in the Gettysburg Address as a compromise versus a moral document, using an Old Testament/New Testament analogy that embodied equality for all promised in the Declaration of Independence. Feldman never bogs down in legalese, rendering a scholarly topic accessible for general readers. A marvelously intricate work on Lincoln's writings and thoughts, which continue to offer fodder for historians. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.