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Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War. By Mark E. Neely Jr. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 416. $35.00 cloth)

For decades, the constitutional history of the Civil War has generally focused on the effect of the war on civil liberties or the use of executive power. Mark E. Neely Jr., no stranger to these subjects, emphasizes the importance of nationalism, broadly identified as love for the nation, as key to understanding the constitutional history of the war. In three chapters on Abraham Lincoln, Neely shows how nationalism shaped the president’s understanding of the Constitution and steeled his belief in the idea of a perpetual Union; nationalism motivated Lincoln to expand executive power (for example, suspending the writ of habeas corpus and issuing the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction), but only minimally and temporarily increasing presidential authority; and nationalism influenced his issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby dealing a blow to constitutional racism. In two chapters on the courts, Neely shows, among other things, how a nationalist application of Ableman v. Booth, an 1859 Supreme Court case that authorized federal officials to seize fugitive slaves from state authorities, limited the power of state courts to grant the release of underage soldiers arrested for desertion by military officials. In decisions ranging from the Supreme Court Prize Cases (1863), which upheld the authority of the government to capture merchant vessels by means of a naval blockade or the New York Court of Appeals ruling in Metropolitan Bank v. Van Dyck (1863), which sustained the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act, the courts displayed the nationalistic outlook that “the state can command the lives and fortunes of its citizens” (p. 234). Neely draws heavily upon two underused sources, political pamphlets on [End Page 215] constitutional subjects and state-court cases that addressed national issues, as the foundation for his study. He also incorporates dozens of newspapers to provide context for these constitutional debates and to gauge popular opinion on contested issues.

In addition to the five excellent chapters on the U.S. Constitution, Neely includes three chapters on the Confederate Constitution, distinguishing Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation as the first book to examine both constitutions. The results of this comparison might surprise some readers. While it explicitly protected slavery, the Confederate Constitution very nearly copied the U.S. Constitution, preserving republican principles of government rather than creating an aristocratic regime. Comparing state secession conventions of 1860–61 with the constitutional ratification conventions of 1787–88 enables Neely to make several valuable points: states did not rush to secede but debated their options more thoroughly than they had discussed ratification; practically no clergymen publicly weighed in on the merits of ratification, but numerous ministers preached sermons on the secession crisis and invoked several variations of nationalism to support their opinions, a noticeable transformation that attests to the efforts of clerics to sanctify the state during the Civil War; secession conventions were extremely democratic and even made provision for soldiers in the field to vote, something that northern Democrats largely opposed in 1864. Neely’s emphasis on nationalism also calls into question two standard notions about the Confederacy. He doubts that debilitating internal divisions hastened the demise of the government, and he disagrees that states’ rights disappeared as a motivating ideology shortly after secession. While the lack of political parties undeniably muted dissent and limited published debate over constitutional issues such as presidential declarations of martial law or the suspension of civil liberties, Neely believes that a commitment to Confederate nationalism was equally significant in promoting unity and adapting states’-rights principles, most notably in the case of conscription, in a manner consistent with the support of the Confederate government. Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation is noteworthy for originality of argument, breadth of subject matter, [End Page 216] and felicity of prose, and it will undoubtedly stimulate further inquiry into the constitutional history of the Civil War and other American wars.

Sean A. Scott

Sean A. Scott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Christopher Newport University Center for American Studies in...


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