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Focus on the Constitution

Constitutional Crises of the Civil War Senate

From secession to Reconstruction, the Senate of the Civil War era confronted a number of constitutional crises. Marking the conclusion of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War and in recognition of Constitution Day, the Senate explores the issues, personalities, and challenges of this era.

Expulsion of Senator Bright from the United States Senate for Disloyalty.  His Final DefenCe.
Expulsion of Senator Bright from the United States Senate for Disloyalty. His Final Defence [sic].

For the first 75 years of its history, the Senate considered the constitutional definition of a quorum to be a simple majority—half plus one—whether or not those seats happened to be filled. The secession of Southern states, and the withdrawal and expulsion of senators sympathetic to the Confederacy, forced the Senate to reconsider its definition of a quorum in order to carry out its constitutional duties.

The Fifteenth Amendment
The Fifteenth Amendment

The Civil War Senate faced other constitutional issues throughout the war. When Virginia seceded from the Union in April of 1861, for example, a pro-Union “rump” government in the northwestern part of the state elected two U.S. senators. Should the Senate confirm the constitutional validity of these elections? How would Congress prepare for the constitutional challenges at war’s end, particularly the integration of newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation? What new constitutional amendments would be needed to extend civil and legal protections to former slaves? Under what conditions would seceded states be readmitted to representation in Congress? The era of the Civil War presented the Senate with some of the most daunting challenges of its long history.

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