Cynthia Nicoletti, Professor of Law and History at the University of Virginia, recently sat down to discuss her latest book, Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis (Cambridge University Press, 2017). In the clip below, she describes the fraught decision whether or not to prosecute Davis for treason, and the broader constitutional implications of the eventual decision. A lightly edited transcript follows.
I am Cynthia Nicoletti. I am a Professor of Law and a Professor of History at the University of Virginia. My new book is Secession on Trial: the Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis. One of the things that I argue in this book is that Davis’ treason trial is going to implicate the biggest constitutional question of the Civil War, which is the constitutionality of secession. One of the reasons that he’s not tried—the primary reason that he is not tried—is that the government is quite worried about the prospect of Davis’ acquittal (or, at least, their failure to convict him). They’re worried that Davis’ acquittal might provide a backdoor vindication of the right of secession, which is precisely what they are not hoping for.
There are two things that everybody knows about the legal history of the Civil War: everybody knows that the Civil War settled the question of secession’s constitutionality in favor of the permanency of the union. And everybody knows that the Civil War ended slavery. So, what the book really does, is it argues against– or complicates–one of the basic things that we know about the legal history of the Civil War. What I’m trying to show in the book is how fraught this question of the war settling the constitutionality of secession in the Union’s favor really was.
It was very important to me in writing this book that I treated this question as an open question, basically because I think that there wasn’t a clear answer as to whether or not the Constitution allowed secession. I want to bring the reader back into this time period where there hadn’t been 150 years where everybody clearly understood that secession was unconstitutional. What I’ve heard in general is that if only we had prosecuted Robert E. Lee and other Confederates for treason in the aftermath of the war, we wouldn’t be dealing with the specter of confederate statues and celebratory commemoration of Confederates. One thing that I hope that this book does, is that it might push against the easiness of such a narrative, because one of the things that the book talks about is how difficult it was to get treason convictions against Confederates.
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