American Civil War Project

The Failure of American Democracy in the Civil War.

Institutions and Political Commitment: A New Political Economy of the American Civil War Era. (An unpublished and incomplete book manuscript, 2002.) DOWNLOAD HERE.


How did the United States maintain a stable, constitutional democracy for over three generations, only to devolve into a bloody Civil War? This question gets to the heart of comparative politics; students of American politics rarely ask this question. But neither comparative nor American politics provides an adequate theory that explains why the Constitution was stable for so long and then suddenly broke down into civil war. This MSS thus contributes to both subfields.

The purpose of this MSS is to provide a theory that explains constitutional stability as an equilibrium and its breakdown as a comparative static on that equilibrium.

To begin, I suggest that protection for their property in slaves was a necessary condition for the slaveholding South to participate in the country. To this end, the framers designed the U.S. Constitution so that it provided a wide range of protections for slavery.

  • The national government was one of enumerated powers, and property rights – including rights in slaves – remained a power of the state governments.
  • The fifth amendment of the bill of rights protected slavery by requiring just compensation for governmental takings of private property.
  • The direct taxation clause cleverly ensured that the national government could not impose discriminatory or confiscatory taxes solely on slaves.
  • The fugitive slave clause empowered the national government to protect rights in slaves through legislation about runaway slaves.
  • The prohibition on legislation prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808 allowed slaveholders the ability to increase the slave population of the South.
  • The three-fifths clause allowed increased Southern representation in the House of Representatives by counting a slave as “three-fifths a person” for purposes of allocating representatives.

Each of these provisions was important, but, even in toto, they were insufficient to protect slaveholders against an antislavery coalition.

The main claim of this MSS is that an informal institution arose by which a balance of free and slave states emerged so that each section, North and South, had an equal number of members in the Senate, providing each with a veto over national legislation. This balance rule began informally, and balance was first achieved by 1796 when each section had 8 states. From thereon, Congress admitted states in pairs all the way until 1850.

The balance rule provided the South with a credible commitment that the national government would not harm slavery. In the presence of the veto, northern attacks on slavery could not succeed. Because they were costly without much benefit, most Northerners eschewed them (Weingast 1998).

This view has important implications for episodic sectional crises: three of the major antebellum crises – 1818-1820; 1846-50; and 1854-61 – involved the dilemma of how to extend the balance rule beyond the existing territories it covered into new territories. The first two were resolved in the Compromises of 1820 and 1850, respectively, in a manner that preserved the balance rule. Attempts to create a new Compromise of 1861 failed (as Potter 1976 details).

If the balance rule explains the stability of American Democracy, what explains its failure in 1860-61? The proximate cause was that the national government failed to extend the balance rule in the 1850s. But why?

First, the environment had changed in a way that made it more difficult to maintain sectional balance. As the slave-based cotton economy grew, so too did the price of slaves. The main implication is that slavery was no longer economically viable in the American West. Further, demographic change dramatically affected the balance between the sections. Mass immigration from the mid-1849s onward meant that the North grew relative to the South. Consequently, the pivotal voter in national elections became less sympathetic to the South. Both changes imply that it became increasingly difficult to maintain and extend the balance rule. Leaders of the Democratic party tried in the 1850s to extend balance with Kansas as a slave state, but these attempts failed.

Second, slaveholders found that they could not accept Lincoln as president, but he has proven an elusive figure, and historians have widely misread him. Although Lincoln was dead set against the expansion of slavery, he promised to preserve slavery where it existed. So, many historians ask, where was the threat?

In the context of the balance rule, Lincoln’s opposition to the expansion of slavery effectively said to slaveholders, “we’re taking away your credible commitment, but don’t worry, you can trust us.” Perhaps Honest Abe would have been true to his word, but he could not commit the next president to this policy. Lincoln and the new Republican party therefore posed a direct, large material threat to the southern slaveholding economy. The balance rule had failed, and slaveholders rationally felt threatened. Eleven of the fifteen slaveholding states seceded, deciding that they could not abide by the results of the 1860 elections.

This approach has larger lessons for democracy and constitutional stability. Most new constitutions fail, and elections alone are insufficient to maintain them. When legitimately elected officials threaten powerful interests – say, through redistribution – the latter may resort to extra-constitutional action, such as secession or a coup. These actions often result in disastrous consequences.

In the face of such problems, all successful constitutions limit the stakes of power, often through countermajoritarian institutions that provide credible commitments to protect interests with the power to disrupt the constitution. Credible commitments are therefore central to both constitutional theory and constitutional stability in practice.


Status of the Manuscript

  • This manuscript is intended as a discussion draft to solicit comments, criticism, and suggestions. Because the project remains far from complete, some of the arguments are tentative, and a large number of crucial topics have yet to be discussed or adequately considered. The most complete aspects of the manuscript concern the role of political institutions and their pivotal influence on politics and policy choice during the antebellum era. (Indeed, my 1998 paper, listed below, summarizes this argument.) As this material provides the kernel of my contribution, I am circulating the manuscript, incomplete though it is.

The manuscript was largely written in the late 1980s, with chapters 1-8 completed by 1991. Chapters 9-10 were written in 1994-96. I had intended to complete and publish the manuscript, but becoming Chair of the Department of Political Science in 1996 took me away from the project. I have revised the manuscript for exposition in the intervening years, but have not taken the time to complete it.

Publications from this project

  • I published a major piece of this project as the following:

Political Stability and Civil War: Institutions, Commitment, and American Democracy,” in Analytic Narratives, Robert Bates, Avner Greif, Margaret Levi, Jean- Laurent Rosenthal, and Barry R. Weingast, (Princeton University Press, 1998).

  • Two papers on the Compromise of 1850 are also part of this project:

Agenda Manipulation, Strategic Voting, and Legislative Details in the Compromise of 1850” (with Sean M. Theriault) in David Brady and Mathew D. McCubbins, Theoretical Explorations on the History of Congress. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: An Instrumental Interpretation” (With Jeffrey Rogers Hummel), in David W. Brady and Mathew D. McCubbins, eds., Party, Process, and Political Change in Congress, vol 2: “Further New Perspectives on the History of Congress.” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

  • A final paper puts the issue of slavery and credible commitments in a more general framework about constitutional stability:

Self-Enforcing Constitutions: With An Application to Democratic Stability in America’s First Century” (with Sonia Mittal). Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization (2013) 29(2): 278-302.

Selected Papers on American Political History

  • Stacking the Senate, Changing the Nation: Republican Rotten Borough and American Political Development in the Late 19th Century” (with Charles Stewart III), Studies in American Political Development (1992) 6: 223-71.
  • The Political Origins of the Administrative Procedure Act,”  Published under “McNollgast” (With Mathew D. McCubbins and Roger Noll) Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization (April 1999) 15: 180-217.
  • The Positive Political Theory of Legislative History: New Perspectives on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its Interpretation” (with Daniel Rodriguez). University of Pennsylvania Law Review (April, 2003) 151 (4): 1417-1542.
  • Persuasion, Preference Change, and Critical Junctures: The Microfoundations of a Macroscopic Concept,” in Ira Katznelson and Barry R. Weingast, eds., Preferences and Situations: Points of Contact between Historical and Rational Choice Institutionalism (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005.)
  • Rationality, Inaccurate Mental Models, and Self-Confirming Equilibrium: A New Understanding of the American Revolution” (with Rui J.P. de Figueiredo, Jr., and Jack Rakove) Journal of Theoretical Politics (Oct. 2006) 18: 384-415.
  • The Constitutional Choices of 1787 and Their Consequences” (with Sonia Mittal and Jack N. Rakove), in Douglas Irwin and Richard Sylla, eds., Founding Choices: American Economic Policy in the 1790s. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.)
  • Constitutional Stability and the Deferential Court” (with Sonia Mittal). University of Pennsylvania Constitutional Law Journal (2011) 13 (2):337-52.