Recently, I watched a couple videos about the causes of the American Civil War. Naturally, slavery was the central issue. That was the cause of the tension, but I don’t think that was the cause of the actual fighting, though. Slavery was nothing new. It had been practiced on our shores for over 200 years. The way I see it, the American Civil War was caused by our inability to amend the supreme law of the land, The Constitution.
With a total of 4,440 words, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest and shortest written Constitution of any major government in the world. James Madison, “The father of the Constitution,” did an amazing job of outlining the legal masterpiece. It was packed with detailed instructions on how to operate the brand-spanking-new government, yet it was only 4 pages long. I have appliance instruction manuals that take several dozen pages just to show me how to use a simple appliance. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is exponentially more difficult than operating a microwave oven. To get all the power of the U.S. Constitution condensed into just four pages was brilliant, but it was not perfect, and both the designers and signers knew it.
Things change, and the young country was bound to go through massive changes if it survived. Nobody could predict the future, but the designers of the Constitution knew it would be way different, so they allowed for that. They made the Constitution flexible. They made it so that it would be able to change with the times. They incorporated Amendments, a brilliant idea. The first ten Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, gave U.S. citizens certain specific rights that we treasure to this day.
Unfortunately, the Constitution did not provide these rights to all people. Despite the bluster of the Declaration of Independence about all men being created equal, the Constitution did not treat all men or women equally.
When it was ratified in 1787, the Constitution enshrined the institution of slavery through the so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which called for those “bound to service for a term of years” and “all other Persons” (meaning slaves) to be counted for representation purposes as three-fifths of free people. The word “slavery,” however, did not appear in the Constitution until the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.
African Americans were not considered citizens, and women were excluded from the electoral process. Native Americans were not given the right to vote until 1924.
The problem with the Constitution is that it is too difficult to amend. On some issues, it is literally impossible to change.
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress…
Thirty-three amendments have been proposed. 27 have passed, but that includes the Bill of Rights. So, only 17 amendments have been added since September 25th, 1789. Since the 21st Amendment just repealed the 18th Amendment, there have really only been 15 additions in 233 years. That’s only one new amendment every 15.5 years, not nearly enough to keep pace with the rapid changes in the country in the last 233 years.
The Constitutionality of any law is determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, and since being a Supreme Court Justice is a job for life, they can be quite a bit older than the average American and have far more conservative views than the country as a whole.
In 1861, a bunch of conservative old Supreme Court Justices mostly from the South, gleefully determined that slavery was protected by the U.S. Constitution in their Dred Scott Decision. A nation, stirred up by Abolitionists and horrific stories about slavery such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wanted to abolish slavery, so this Supreme Court Decision was quite unpopular in the North.
Actually, though terribly biased, their decision was a rather accurate interpretation of the Constitution as it was at that time, because the Constitution was absolutely archaic on the subject of slavery, and it was in desperate need of change. We needed an Amendment to abolish slavery everywhere in the country.
However, with the country equally split on slavery, there was no way that an anti-slavery Amendment could get a 2/3rds vote in both Houses of Congress, let alone the approval from 3/4ths of the states. There was no way for the problem to legally go away. Slavery, as morally wrong as it was, had the backing of the both the Constitution and the Supreme Court. The “will of the people” alone would never be enough to change the Constitution.
There were only two ways to correct the Constitution. Let the slave states leave, so that the remaining states would have the necessary majority to be able to amend the U.S. Constitution, or go to war to force the slave states out of business. President Buchanan chose the peaceful way, by letting the Southern States secede from the Union. President Lincoln chose war, and though he forced the country back together, the wound has never really healed. Ironically, it was Abraham Lincoln who often quoted John, Viscount Morley, “You have not converted a man because you silenced him.” I guess he didn’t get the irony.
Today, the President who chose the peaceful solution is reviled as one of the worst Presidents ever, and the President who chose a Civil War in which more than 630,000 Americans lost their lives, is revered as one of the greatest Presidents. We, Americans, just love our wars, don’t we? When we don’t have an outside enemy, we just fight each other. Just look how many Generals were elected to the Presidency. War, huh, what is it good for? Getting elected President of the United States, for one thing.
More than a century and a half after the Civil War ended, slavery has long been legally abolished in the United States, but the country is still bitterly divided by racism. We need to be able to solve our most serious problems with the Constitution much more easily. We need to be able to add Amendments more quickly. We may make a few mistakes in our haste to improve things, but like the 18th and 21st Amendments, we can always repeal our mistakes.
We also need to amend the Second Amendment. Sure, let anyone who wants to own a musket have one, but stop selling military weapons to school kids.
A bunch of old guys on the Supreme Court recently shredded Roe v Wade. We need an Amendment to the Constitution to give woman back control of their own bodies, and we need it quickly.
Getting 75% of the states to agree on something is next to impossible, nowadays. Compromise is a thing of the past. We live in a fast-changing world, and we need to be able to act quickly to pass Constitutional Amendments that will provide workable legal solutions, so that we don’t wind up settling all our disputes by fighting one another.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,