Most historians accept the proposition that in the first two years of the Civil War the Norths primary aim was to reestablish the Union and the Constitution, not to emancipate slaves. But when northerners began clamoring for the confiscation of southern land and slaves as a punitive, military, and revenue-raising tactic, the constitutional right to personal property, particularly human property, came into question. In From Property to Person, Silvana R. Siddali traces the resulting discourse among northern voters, politicians, military leaders, and President Lincoln, elucidating how emancipation ultimately became an essential political cause in the North.
After the outbreak of civil war, many northern citizens demanded that slaves be seized as contraband without necessarily endorsing their emancipation. Siddali examines the public and political debates in the North over southerners private property rights and explains how these deliberations set in motion the first major reconsideration of the Constitution since the Bill of Rights. Fundamental questions arose: Who had the right to control the war effort? What were the rights of rebellious citizens in a democratic Republic? How did one define human bondage that is implicitly protected in the nations founding documents? Would the destruction of slavery irreparably damage the Constitution? Through the two Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, the author argues, Americans worked out a conundrum between property rights and constitutionally protected civil liberties. The right of all human beings to freedom now trumped white southerners right to human property. In a rich analysis of editorials, pamphlets, letters, and congressional speeches, From Property to Person reveals the swift transformation in rhetoric concerning the Constitution and its protection of private property rights. The Confiscation Acts paved the way for the Reconstruction Amendments by fostering support for a broader reach by the federal government into private property rights and envisioning a new interpretation of an individual citizens rights and obligations.