Laws governing the rights of citizens have changed throughout the history of the United States. Important legislation that significantly shaped our nation was passed during the Civil War era. The most controversial laws during this time dealt with the issue of slavery and conduct of war. Among these were the slave codes, laws of war, and civil rights amendments.
The issue of slavery had been at the root of every major conflict between the North and South since the 1780’s. Although slavery had existed for 250 years in the United States, many of the Northern states had adopted gradual emancipation plans and were considered free states by the time the war started (Masur 3). The South, however, relied heavily on the slave trade for its economy and culture and wanted to protect the institution. Authority over slave laws had been established at the individual state level. Many slave states passed slave codes which outlined the rights of slaves and the acceptable treatment and rules regarding slaves. Under law, slaves were regarded as personal property belonging to their owner. They had limited rights under the law and were legally prohibited from receiving an education, marrying, or assembling without a white person present (Sambol-Toscol). As sentiment over the immorality of slavery grew throughout the nation, the Southern states feared a national government would threaten the states’ rights to control slavery (Masur1).
The struggle between political powers of the federal government and individual states, particularly in relation to the institution of slavery, reached its tipping point upon the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, a Republican from the North. Although Lincoln was opposed to slavery, his intention as president was only to prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories, not eradicate it completely (Simon 87). He did not believe the federal government had the power to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed (Malanowski 149). He proposed to uphold and enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws, which made Northerners personally responsible for the return of runaway slaves (Simon 87). This, however, did little to calm the South’s fears and immediately following Lincoln’s election South Carolina began a campaign to remove the state from the Union. Within weeks, six other Southern states had followed in the secession (Malanowski 149). Representatives of the seven seceding states established an independent Southern government and ratified a constitution for the Confederacy that recognized the independent character of each state and asserted that no “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed”(Masur 22). Lincoln and most Northern leaders saw the secession as treason (Posner). They believed that the southern states secession was unconstitutional noting that a state could only withdraw from the Union through a constitutional amendment or vote from all states (Simon 175).
The war officially began in April 1861 when the South fired upon federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter. The surrender to Confederate troops at Fort Sumter changed Lincoln’s approach to war. He believed a broader use of his constitutional powers would be necessary to preserve the Union. His actions immediately following the attack raised serious constitutional questions. During this time, Lincoln summoned the militia, ordered a blockade of southern ports and suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus all without congressional authorization (Farber 93). Congress was out of session at the time and Lincoln believed it was necessary to act alone through his Presidential power to defend the Union. He called for a special session of Congress in early July 1861 where at his request Congress officially ratified virtually all of his actions. (Simon 200).
Another military action where Lincoln and his administration found themselves in a controversial position