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The American Constitution is often held up as a model for other countries to imitate. According to Mark Brandon, however, it is a model not just of success, but also of failure. In this book, Brandon examines the breakdown of American constitutional order in the nineteenth century, paying special attention to slavery as an institution and as a subject of political rhetoric. He draws on historical narrative and constitutional theory to argue that the Constitution failed both because it denied to slaves and free blacks the means to participate in political life and because it could not reconcile the increasingly divergent constitutional cultures of North and South. These failures reflect the broader fact that written constitutions are not automatic solutions to political problems, but can divide as well as unite people.

Brandon also develops a general typology of constitutional failure. He identifies several ways in which failure can occur, shows that failure in one area may signify success in another, and argues that the possibility of failure is built into the foundations of all constitutional regimes. In the course of the argument, Brandon examines such topics as the role of founding myths in establishing and undermining constitutional authority, the effects of having conflicting myths in a single regime, the debate over interpretive authority, the constitutional legitimacy of secession, and the constitutional reasons that Reconstruction failed. The book is a striking contribution both to constitutional theory and to our understanding of the constitutional issues surrounding slavery.

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