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The Limits of Sovereignty

Property Confiscation in the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War

Americans take for granted that government does not have the right to permanently seize private property without just compensation. Yet for much of American history, such a view constituted the weaker side of an ongoing argument about government sovereignty and individual rights. What brought about this drastic shift in legal and political thought?

Daniel W. Hamilton locates that change in the crucible of the Civil War. In the early days of the war, Congress passed the First and Second Confiscation Acts, authorizing the Union to seize private property in the rebellious states of the Confederacy, and the Confederate Congress responded with the broader Sequestration Act. The competing acts fueled a fierce, sustained debate among legislators and lawyers about the principles underlying alternative ideas of private property and state power, a debate which by 1870 was increasingly dominated by today’s view of more limited government power.

Through its exploration of this little-studied consequence of the debates over confiscation during the Civil War, The Limits of Sovereignty will be essential to an understanding of the place of private property in American law and legal history.

200 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2007

History: American History, Military History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History, The Constitution and the Courts


"In a focused and detailed analysis of confiscation by Union and Confederacy governments, Professor Daniel Hamilton reveals the underexplored effects of this dynamic epoch on constitutional understandings of property. . . . The Limits of Sovereignty is an accessible and compact book that offers valuable insight into the Civil War era and will be appealing to anyone interested in the story of property under the Constitution."

Harvard Law Review

“In The Limits of Sovereignty, Daniel Hamilton uses the mostly ignored debates over confiscation to explore the tensions between individual property rights and community rights throughout the nineteenth century. This is a wonderfully engaging and thoughtful book—one that I have learned much from.”--Alfred L. Brophy, University of Alabama Law School

Alfred L. Brophy

“Clearly written and richly detailed, The Limits of Sovereignty demonstrates the crucial role debates over confiscation during the Civil War played in the construction of modern constitutional liberalism. This fascinating study will be of interest to specialists in American constitutional, legal, and political development, as well as to general readers wishing to learn about a vital, but often unexplored, episode of constitutional policy making during the Civil War.”--Mark A. Graber, University of Maryland

Mark A. Graber

“Diverse combatants presently debate limiting government’s eminent domain power over private property. The debaters, and all of the readers of core Civil War–Reconstruction histories, should exploit Hamilton’s lucid inquiry into Lincoln-era property confiscation policies.”

Harold Hyman, Rice University

The Limits of Sovereignty makes an important contribution to the legal and constitutional history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Hamilton shows how debates over property confiscation in the Union, the Confederacy and in the Supreme Court raised fundamental questions of constitutional rights and civil liberties. This well-researched and well-written book provides new insights into how ideas of property and state power were debated and defined during the Civil War, with consequences that reach from Reconstruction to the present day.”-- Robert J. Kaczorowski, Fordham University School of Law

Robert J. Kaczorowski

"I suspect a good many of us are going to have to revise a number of lectures to incorporate this material, which is not only scholarly but a fun read. Whatever you make of the general thesis, one I find largely convincing, The Limits of Sovereignty clearly demonstrates why students of American constitutional development must understand the confiscation debates of the Civil War and does so with polish and intelligence."

Mark Graber | Balkinization

“A well written concise consideration of an important feature of the Civil War—first, the confiscation of enemy property by the Union sovereignty, and second, that of the so-called Confederacy during the Civil War. . . . An excellent introduction into one of the lesser known but signmificant legal aspects of the war."

Robert M. Spector | Law & Politics Book Review

"A concise, well-written, and well argued account. . . . The insights of this fine book can be applied throughout the field of economic history."

Franklin Noll | Enterprise & Society

“Hamilton has crafted an important advancement in the legal history of the era of the United States Civil War. . . . [The book] ought to find a place on the shelf of every serious scholar of the era, regardless of field."

Thomas C. Mackey | American Historical Review

Making legal history interesting and comprehensible to nonlawyers is often a difficult task. Hamilton performs it skillfully. . . . A valuable contribution to nineteenth-century legal history."

Joseph A. Ramney | The Historian

"[The author] situates Civil War property confiscation as among the salient events that pushed liberal constitutionalism to unchallenged dominance and republicanism into total eclipse. Hamilton’s closely argued book successfully links the Civil War with long-term trends in American history."

Stephen A. Siegel | Law and History Review

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1. Legislative Property Confiscation Before the War

CHAPTER 2. Radical Property Confiscation in the Thirty-Seventh Congress

CHAPTER 3. The Conservative Assault on Confiscation

CHAPTER 4. The Moderate Coup

CHAPTER 5. The Confederate Sequestration Act
CHAPTER 6. The Ordeal of Sequestration

CHAPTER 7. Civil War Confiscation in the Reconstruction Supreme Court

Conclusion: The Limits of Sovereignty



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