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Module Six
Crisis of the Constitution:
Slavery and Secession
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Lecture Summary


Beginning in the 1830s, leading voices in the South, the foremost being John C. Calhoun, embraced slavery as what they called a “positive good.” They believed the Founders were opposed to slavery in principle—and had taken significant actions, for example with the Northwest Ordinance, to contain the institution and to roll it back wherever possible—but they thought that the Founders were wrong to do so. Rather, the “positive good” school saw slavery as morally right and the true foundation of any just society.

This new view of slavery led to a new view of sovereignty. The Founders thought the individual was sovereign, and the source of legitimate political authority according to social compact theory. The new view held that the individual states were sovereign and therefore had the right to nullify federal laws.

 In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln, siding with the Founders, rejects this argument. He argues instead that “We the People” are sovereign—the source of political authority for the states and the nation—which means there is no legal right to secession under the Constitution.

The Constitution 101
The Constitution 101