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Civil War

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The Civil War

University of Oklahoma American History professor Rachel Shelden focuses on the American Union and illustrates the arguments for and against a state's right to secede.

In 1859, the militant abolitionist John Brown and his ragtag militia seized a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry in the hopes of inciting a massive slave insurrection. Although his endeavor failed, Brown's eloquent defiance in court inspired the North and unnerved the South. Professor Andrew Porwancher captures how this bloody episode in our nation's history hastened the descent into Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln is one of America's most famous presidents, but what do we know about his time in Congress? American History professor Rachel Shelden highlights Lincoln's brief tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, and how it prepared him for the Oval Office.

Despite Lincoln's popular image as the "Great Emancipator," the elimination of slavery in America was a process, not a moment. Professor Rick Tepker explains that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure that might have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The freedom of former slaves was not secure until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln famously promised that this nation shall have a "new birth of freedom." He hoped the Constitution would reflect the ideals and aspirations of the Declaration of Independence. But no real link between the nation's founding document and its supreme law existed until ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Although the word "slave" appeared nowhere in the Constitution until the 13th Amendment, the politics of slavery – and the compromises it demanded – lie behind important features of constitutional design and development from the Founding to the Civil War.

Nullification, a legal theory that has never been upheld by the Supreme Court, is the idea that the states can declare null and void any federal law that they deem unconstitutional. Professor Lindsay Robertson discusses the origin of the theory in the 1830s, the constitutional questions it raises, and the ways it contributed to the Civil War.

In his first battle of the Civil War, a young captain was shot in the chest and faced imminent death. He managed to not only survive the wound, the battle, and the war, but became a renowned justice on the Supreme Court. Professor Andrew Porwancher explores how the battlefield experiences of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. informed his philosophy of law.

On July 4, 1854, the anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution, condemning it as "a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell." Was he right that the Constitution, as drafted in 1787, was in fact a shamefully proslavery document? Or was it, in fact, an open-ended document that actually bolstered the possibility that, one day, the nation could and would rid itself of slavery?

Reconstructing a Nation

Lincoln's dreams of "a new birth of freedom" and a national constitutional law defining and enforcing liberty and equality suffered a tragic fate in early decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that endured until the 20th century.

In this lecture, professor David Wrobel places the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) into the context of the political struggles of the 1860s and into the longer history of amendments to the Constitution. He concludes with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which placed the weight of federal power behind the 14th and 15th Amendments, respectively.

The reframing of the Constitution after the Civil War requires not only disentangling old compromises that enhanced southern power, but also a concerted, century-long effort to implement the spirit of the reframing over creative southern resistance.