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Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation

Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War


Mark E. Neely, Jr.


Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011

Hardcover, 408 p. ISBN 9780807835180. $35.00


Reviewed by Gregory A. Borchard

University of Nevada, Las Vegas



Mark E. Neely has earned praise as a leading scholar of constitutional issues during the Civil War era, and the most recent addition to his line of scholarship reinforces this reputation. Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation (2011), among his works to follow the Pulitzer Prize winning The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1991), provides an expanded scope on the role of judicial decisions during the first half of the nineteenth century. His sources draw on the opinions of judges, and those expressed in presidential state papers and political pamphlets. He also includes the reflections of partisan editors and their newspapers to build an expansive interpretation of the role of the Constitution in the years before, during, and after the Civil War.

While previous scholars have examined specific challenges to civil liberties during times of war, Neely argues that Civil War era’s rivaling interpretations of the Constitution extended to core questions about the nation’s legal foundation. His analysis reveals how judges, lawyers, editors, politicians, and government officials in both the North and South used their separate constitutions to fight the war and save—or create—their rivaling interpretations of what it meant to be a citizen of the United States.

Neely opens his text with the observation that despite the obvious importance of understanding legal interpretations of the Constitution during the Civil War, no one has ever written a constitutional history of the era inasmuch as no historian has attempted a consideration of both the U.S. Constitution and the Confederate Constitution in one volume. His book begins the process of addressing this oversight by providing the constitutional history of both the Union and Confederacy, focusing on the actions of presidents, justices, and judges, North and South. Three parts to the book provide the structure for this endeavor, with the first analyzing the role of the president (primarily Lincoln) relative to the Constitution, the role the courts played at various moments throughout the nineteenth century, and an interpretation of the Confederate States Constitution. Each part cites an extensive array of legal and judicial documents, political pamphlets on constitutional questions, and public proclamations, building a description of the relative strengths and weaknesses of both rivaling constitutional documents. Neely presents an array of perspectives from the era on federal policy, local activism, legal controversies, and in the making of public opinion. The major issues that emerge from these perspectives include attitudes about civil liberties, especially in the North, the struggle in the Confederacy to overcome the potentially paralyzing doctrine of state-rights, and the constitutional crisis that stemmed directly from the institution of slavery.

Perhaps the most intriguing position taken by the author emerges from his discussion of the role that the War of 1812 played in the course of constitutional history. While numerous histories have described the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as a significant precursor in military strategies for the Civil War, Neely argues that the richest comparisons, at least as regards constitutional development, come from the War of 1812. The war against Great Britain (1812-15), unlike the war with Mexico, was a desperate struggle, he writes, producing sharp constitutional conflicts, as well as demands for numerous constitutional amendments. Likewise, the United States stood to lose the War of 1812, as did at least one side (North or South) during the Civil War. In contrast: While the Mexican-American War made manifest the designs of the United States on territorial reach, in firing on Fort Sumter, Confederates put the nation and its Constitution to its first life-threatening test since the War of 1812. What the Confederate constitution failed to integrate as a lesson from the War of 1812, Neely writes, was the reality that ambitious economic development was essential to create a country based on something other than mere sentiment.

At the same time, commensurate problems with Union interpretations of the U.S. Constitution had developed from legal decisions between the War of 1812 and the 1850s. The foremost issues addressed by the courts in the years leading to the Civil War included those that emerged from racially based interpretations of the Constitution. Neely’s analysis is strong in this area, and his discussion of the role of emancipation during the war may be the most remarkable feature of the book. Before the war, as generations of historians have noted, antislavery advocates had railed against constitutional racism, but they found themselves incapable of stopping it, as the Constitution, as ratified in 1787, was powerless to combat slavery as an institution. (While the U.S. Constitution of 1787 was not an expressly racist document, its failure to address slavery simply left judicial decisions for subsequent generations.) The reality of race as a defining element of American slavery was made manifest, ultimately, in the legal expression of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s expression that the definitions of citizenship as described by the founding documents did not apply to African Americans was bolstered by the doctrine of popular sovereignty expressed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The Court’s ruling and legislation from Congress reflected measures on state levels, as Illinois (the home state of both Douglas and Lincoln), Oregon, Indiana, Iowa, and other states had in the 1850s begun down a legislative path of limiting legal rights based on race.

While the outbreak of the Civil War interrupted the clear trajectory of constitutional racism, the war itself left Lincoln and the courts faced with questions of whether emancipation would give constitutional racism a new impetus, or if it would address the issue in a way that the founders had not successfully done. Again, Neely’s contributions to scholarship in this area are remarkable: judicial decisions on national levels have received scholarly attention, but his combination of them with state rulings covers new ground. He does so providing compelling observations in weaving together his narrative, and his writing style is both scholarly and engaging.

Neely credits the leadership of President Lincoln for thwarting threats to the nation’s very existence, as well as providing a vision for its future. Although the Union and Confederacy had adopted virtually identical charters in their respective constitutions, Lincoln’s vision—and his adoption of emancipation as a remedy for the constitutional problems left unresolved by the War of 1812—in the end triumphed. As described in Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation, the U.S. Constitution both survived a traumatic test and became a stronger document both during and after the war.



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