Causes of the Civil War – 6: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity

This post continues the series  Causes of the Civil War.


Historian Gabor S. Boritt asserts that the American Constitution’s “fundamental ambiguity” on a number of matters involving slavery contributed to the Constitutionsectional controversy that stimulated the growing conflict between the North and the South.[i] The document was vague on the status of slavery in the territories, the power of Congress over the institution in the District of Columbia, whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extended to the slave trade, whether it was a state or federal responsibility to return runaway slaves, and whether Congress could impose conditions on a new state or refuse to admit a new slave state to the Union.[ii] But the most important of these was whether a state had the right to secede from the Union.

Whereas the Articles of Confederation had proclaimed the Union to be perpetual, the Constitution contained no such statement. Indeed, nowhere did it discuss whether a state could secede or not. In the absence of any explicit provision, neither the nationalists nor the secessionists could present a conclusive argument on the subject. In upholding the perpetuity of the Union, Abraham Lincoln conceded that the language of the Constitution was not decisive.[iii]

This didn’t stop either side from finding in these documents justification of their positions.

Topic of the next post: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree

[i] Gabor S. Boritt, “‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came, ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 85; available from; Internet.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

2 Replies to “Causes of the Civil War – 6: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity”

  1. Rene, first congrats on the excellent website and new design! Also, I am just starting Civil War Command and Leadership with Dr. Woodworth, I love it.

    I think we have to take the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution as one common expression, albeit in stages. And taken as a whole, though some might say that it is ambiguous, I feel there is a strong statement within the three towards a commitment form each state to form a perpetual republic that was not to be broken.


    1. Chris,
      Thanks for the quick comment! I just loaded up my new banner at the top so let me know what you think. To “sharpen the image” or “not to sharpen the image.” That is the question.

      Glad to hear you are taking Dr. Woodworth’s course. I’m in the last several weeks of my term of his course (which means I need to get busy on my research paper) but it’s really been terrific. We have some great students in the class which has made for excellent discussion. And Dr, Woodworth’s participation has been terrific as well.

      I’m doing my research paper on Farragut and his actions during the Battle of Mobile Bay. I’m showcasing some of the texts I’m using on a new page titled, “My Research.” One of the neat things about being in a separate domain is that Amazon widgets work so I’m using a carousel widget. Pretty cool!

      Well said on our founding documents. Keep me posted on your class and, ENJOY it!


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