Tim Huebner is Irma O. Sternberg Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Rhodes College. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (University Press of Kansas, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Liberty and Union?
TH: The book’s purpose and scope has changed quite a bit over the ten years that it took me to write! Originally, I planned to write a textbook for undergraduate students. But over time, the project evolved into a narrative synthesis of the era of the American Civil War with an emphasis on constitutional values. As I explain in the preface, I attempt to bring together and speak to three distinct subfields—Civil War history, constitutional history, and African American history—in the hope that historians see how America’s founding principles figured prominently in the thinking of the Civil War generation. In the end—and I know it is an ambitious goal—I hope that I have written a book for undergraduate students, professional historians, and general readers.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Liberty and Union?
TH: Americans of the Civil War era exhibited a culture of constitutionalism, a deep belief in the achievements of the founding generation, which consistently animated the nation’s political debates. African Americans’ distinctive understanding of constitutional equality helped transform a war for Union into a war for emancipation and equal rights.
JF: Why do we need to read Liberty and Union?
TH: There are several reasons, I think. First, the book is uniquely ambitious in scope. It surveys the antebellum era, the war, and the period of reconstruction in a single volume that devotes equal attention to the Union and Confederate sides of the conflict. So, it’s a big story. Second, the book tells the story of a great revolution in American life. The book sets up the slavery issue and sovereignty issue as the two great unanswered questions of the founding era, and shows how the resolution of these questions—the end of slavery and the death of secession—really did constitute a revolution. Who could have imagined in 1859, at the time of Ableman v. Booth, when the Supreme Court upheld in nationalistic language the rights of slaveholders to recapture fugitive slaves, that within a dozen years the full force of the federal government would be used for the opposite purpose— to uphold the voting rights of African Americans, those who had been described in the Dred Scott decision as having “no rights” at all? This revolution in rights centered on the fact of emancipation and the growth of federal power—and neither one of those revolutionary changes, despite white resistance, was ever fully reversed. Finally, because it tells a big story of revolutionary change, the books makes for interesting reading!
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TH: Believe it or not, it was in high school that I decided that I wanted to be a professor of history, but not until my undergraduate years did I decide to focus on the history of the United States. My undergraduate mentor, Prof. Whittington B. Johnson, the first African American professor at the University of Miami, inspired in me a fresh interest in U.S. history, southern history, and the history of African American life. At the time I began graduate school, I was particularly interested in southern history, largely because of my own ambiguous identity as a native of Florida.
JF: What is your next project?
TH: I am planning on working on a short biographical study of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the infamous author of the Dred Scott opinion. I have written several articles on Taney over the years, and now I want to try to produce a constitutional biography of this important, understudied figure.
JF: Thanks, Tim!