Cover image for Free in the world : American slavery and constitutional failure
Free in the world : American slavery and constitutional failure
Brandon, Mark E.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
xviii, 248 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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KF4541 .B684 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The American Constitution is often held up as a model for other countries to imitate. According to Mark Brandon, however, it is a model not just of success, but also of failure. In this book, Brandon examines the breakdown of American constitutional order in the nineteenth century, paying special attention to slavery as an institution and as a subject of political rhetoric. He draws on historical narrative and constitutional theory to argue that the Constitution failed both because it denied to slaves and free blacks the means to participate in political life and because it could not reconcile the increasingly divergent constitutional cultures of North and South. These failures reflect the broader fact that written constitutions are not automatic solutions to political problems, but can divide as well as unite people.

Brandon also develops a general typology of constitutional failure. He identifies several ways in which failure can occur, shows that failure in one area may signify success in another, and argues that the possibility of failure is built into the foundations of all constitutional regimes. In the course of the argument, Brandon examines such topics as the role of founding myths in establishing and undermining constitutional authority, the effects of having conflicting myths in a single regime, the debate over interpretive authority, the constitutional legitimacy of secession, and the constitutional reasons that Reconstruction failed. The book is a striking contribution both to constitutional theory and to our understanding of the constitutional issues surrounding slavery.

Author Notes

Mark E. Brandon is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Brandon's book is a mixture of theory and history. It professes to be an account of the failure of the US Constitution to deal successfully with the problem of slavery, but it is more. Brandon (political science, Univ. of Michigan) insists, first, on a long and tedious analysis of the theory, the logic, and the nature of constitutions. In the main narrative, the author describes, with admirable balance and clarity, all the constitutional controversies and arguments over slavery, beginning with the Missouri Compromise of 1819-21 and extending to the presidential campaign of 1860. He gives especial attention to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and to the secession crisis of 1860-1861. His chapter on secession is certain to arouse controversy; he argues that Lincoln was wrong in declaring that the Union was perpetual and indestructible, and that secession was therefore impossible. Slavery came to an end, of course, in 1865 with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. But the legacy of slavery has not yet ended. In his final chapters, Brandon describes briefly some of the constitutional effects on African Americans of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Upper-division undergraduates and above. J. Z. Rabun emeritus, Emory University

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Constitutionalism, History, and Constitutional Failure
Chapter 2 Foundings, Myths, and Constitutional Division
Chapter 3 Interpretive Authority and Constitutional Division, Part
Chapter 4 Interpretive Authority and Constitutional Division, Part
Chapter 5 Lincoln, Douglas, and the Illusion of Division
Chapter 6 Constitutional Autonomy, Discourse, and Failure
Chapter 7 No Exit? Secession and Constitutionalism
Chapter 8 Remaking America: Reconstruction and Constitutional Failure
Index of Cases
General Index