The Broken Constitution: The American Compromise

The original United States Constitution was a document that reflected a troubled nation. It made several compromises to keep Northern and Southern states at peace. Abraham Lincoln was the President who changed the Constitution completely and transformed it into something new. 

Noah Feldman
3-minute read
Episode #105
The Quick And Dirty

The original United States Constitution was a compromise between states with and without the slave trade. It made key compromises to protect a union between the Northern and Southern states and protected the slave trade in U.S. law. To hear how these compromises functioned, click the red audio player above to listen.

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This is The Broken Constitution, a miniseries from Unknown History from Quick and Dirty Tips and Deep Background from Pushkin Industries. I'm Noah Feldman. Over the next three episodes, I'm going to talk about Abraham Lincoln and how he needed to break the Constitution in order to remake it. It's all based on my new book, The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America, out November 2. 

If you're listening to this podcast, you already know that one of the most important questions facing the United States today is whether racism and slavery are encoded into the DNA of the United States by virtue of being encoded into the Constitution. This question is behind debates about who we are, what we should teach, and what the possibilities are for our nation going into the future, especially with respect to racial equality. 

I wrote The Broken Constitution because I wanted to know the answer. I've devoted most of my professional life to thinking about the United States Constitution and about other Constitutions, whether in Iraq, Tunisia, or anywhere else around the world. I've written books about these documents and their legacies: about the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution and about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution

When I started writing this book, I entered with three misconceptions: 

  • That our Constitution functions as a higher moral law guiding us into the future. It does not.
  • That we've always had the same Constitution since it was drafted in 1787. We have not.
  • That Abraham Lincoln was the President who saved the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln didn't save the Constitution. He broke the Constitution--three separate times in three separate ways--in order to transform it into something new and different.

Over the course of this miniseries, I will devote one episode to each of these three misconceptions. I'll also tell you the story of Abraham Lincoln's own engagement with the Constitution and what it reveals about the Constitution itself. 

In this first episode, I will begin by describing the purpose of the original Constitution—up until the time that Lincoln assumed the Presidency in March of 1861. This story reveals that the Constitution in Lincoln's time was not a moral blueprint. Instead, it was a compromise Constitution. It was built to appease small states as well as large states, North as well as South. It made several key compromises surrounding the slave trade, including the three-fifths compromise and the fugitive slave clause. 

This episode is about these early American compromises.

Click the red audio player above to listen to this full episode. Be sure to follow Unknown History on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts to catch the rest of this miniseries, and if you want to hear more from me, check out my podcast Deep Background from Pushkin Industries. On Deep Background, I bring together a cross-section of guests to explore the historical, scientific, legal, and cultural context of today's news.

Want even more? Pre-order The Broken Constitution wherever books or audiobooks are sold.

About the Author

Noah Feldman Unknown History

Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University as well as a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He specializes in constitutional studies, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between law and religion, free speech, constitutional design, and the history of legal theory. He is a contributing writer for Bloomberg View and the host of the podcast Deep Background from Pushkin Industries. He is the author of several books, including The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of AmericaCool War: The Future of Global Competition; the award winning and acclaimed Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Justices; The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State; Divided By God: America's Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It; and After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy.

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