The Broken Constitution
Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America
Author: Noah Feldman
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
An innovative account of Abraham Lincoln, constitutional thinker and doer.
When Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency in 1861, the United States’ constitutional arrangements were not the ones we know today. It was widely believed that the federal government could not use armed force to prevent a state from seceding. It was also assumed that it had no authority over slavery in states where the institution existed and that basic civil liberties could not be suspended during a rebellion without the consent of Congress. As president, Lincoln broke decisively with all these precedents, deliberately and repeatedly violating the United States’ founding principles. To what end? How did Lincoln understand the Constitution and how did he transform it?
In The Broken Constitution, Noah Feldman tells the full story of how Lincoln tore up the Constitution in order to save it. Prior to the Civil War, the document was best understood as a compromise pact—a rough-and-ready deal that allowed the Union to be forged from a disparate collection of states. After Lincoln, the Constitution came to be seen as a sacred text—a transcendent statement of the nation’s highest ideals. This happened because of the choices Lincoln made in dramatic circumstances; as violence raged, he variously ignored, reviled, and revised long-standing beliefs and set the country on a new path.
Approaching the Civil War from a fresh angle, Feldman offers a riveting narrative of Lincoln’s constitutional choices and how he made them—from the resupply of Fort Sumter to the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, and from the arrest of newspaper editors and politicians who opposed the draft to the rethinking of the country’s core rights and to whom they belonged. To do so, he situates the sixteenth president within the rich context of the political and legal thinkers of his time, from African American abolitionists and traditionalist judges to Republican rivals and secessionist ideologues.
The Broken Constitution calls not only for a reassessment of Lincoln himself but also for a new look at America’s founding document and its place in our law, our politics, and ourselves.