The Supreme Court and Slavery

The Civil War and the Constitution

By 1861, eleven slave-holding states had seceded from the Union and had formed the Confederate States of America.  In April 1861, the Civil War erupted.  During the next four years that war took some 600,000 lives, left the infrastructure of the South in ruins, and yielded a post-Civil War Reconstruction Congress that was bent on reshaping the Union.  

The Supreme Court played a very limited role during the Civil War.  Although the war raised significant constitutional questions, most were not resolved until after hostilities had ceased. The court generally resolved constitutional questions about the president’s power in times of war and emergency in Lincoln’s favor.  

The Civil War led to another significant swing in constitutional interpretation, away from states’ rights and dual federalism towards a new emphasis on the powers of the national government.  The withdrawal of southern states from Congress, along with Lincoln’s appointees to the federal courts, allowed that shift to occur quickly.  

Lincoln entered office with three vacancies on the Supreme Court, two resulting from deaths and one from Justice Campbell’s resignation to join the Confederacy.  In 1863, Congress passed another judiciary act that added a tenth circuit to serve the west coast and a tenth justice to the Supreme Court.  A year later, Chief Justice Taney died.  Within three years, then, half of the court’s members had been appointed by Lincoln.  They included a new Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase, who had been Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury.