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Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation

Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War

Mark E. Neely Jr.

Publication Year: 2011

This book reveals the dramatic debates over the Constitution during the Civil War. According to Neely, large questions of national existence were argued by political figures like Abraham Lincoln and unknown judges and lawyers at much lower levels of the court, and the document was in a struggle to survive the damage of the conflict. Neely explores how lawyers, judges, justices, and government officials thought about the Constitution and used it for their own political purposes, in many cases pushing the cause of nationalism, and for the first time describes and analyzes the kinds of arguments employed during the Civil War to explain and to capture their thinking. In addition, Neely goes beyond the United States Constitution to examine the Confederate Constitution as well, a document yet to be given rigorous examination by scholars. Rather than focus on a central argument, the purpose of the manuscript is to demonstrate the importance of the opinions of the judges, elected politicians, and political pamphleteers of the Civil War era, and set the stage for future constitutional histories of the Civil War.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

Cover and Front Matter

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pp. i-iv


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p. v

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PROLOGUE: Capturing the Flag, Capturing the Constitution

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pp. 1-14

Much has been written since 9/11 about the various attempts in American history to “capture the flag” for one political cause or another.1 Historians commonly accuse the Republican Party of attempting to capture the flag during the Civil War. The Democrats by no means conceded the flag to their...

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pp. 15-26

The American Constitution was twice tested during the Civil War and then radically reshaped by the amending process, a movement well under way when the war ended. I say the Constitution was “twice” tested because the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was a deliberately...


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1 Secession and Anarchy: Lincoln’s View of the Constitution and the Nation

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pp. 29-61

When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, they put the nation and its Constitution to the first life-threatening test since the War of 1812. The results of the previous test by arms had not proved particularly encouraging. The United States all but lost the War of 1812. Diplomatic...

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2 Habeas Corpus, the Nation, and the Presidency

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pp. 63-111

President Lincoln’s first regular message to Congress, of December 3, 1861, laid to rest his arguments about secession. “The inaugural address at the beginning of the Administration, and the message to Congress at the late special session,” he wrote, “were both mainly devoted to the domestic...

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3 The Emancipation Proclamation: The Triumph of Nationalism over Racism and the Constitution

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pp. 113-160

The most important constitutional development on the eve of the Civil War was the growth of constitutional racism. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 was not an expressly racist document, and the word “white” nowhere appeared in it. To take a look at the common understanding of the document seventy...


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4 Soldiers in the Courtroom

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pp. 163-199

The Union enjoyed the luxury of a great advantage in manpower in the Civil War. We can see the effects of that advantage almost as much on the homefront as on the battlefields of the war. The Union authorities hoped for voluntarism. They encouraged voluntarism. When that failed they threatened...

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5 The Nation in the Courts: The Least Dangerous Branch Fights the Civil War

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pp. 201-234

Roger B. Taney hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court could play a configurative role in the Civil War. Providence had preserved him for this moment, he thought. With the departure of the Southern Democrats from Congress, only the courts stood in the path of fanatical Republicanism, which...


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6 Secession: Deratifying the Constitution

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pp. 237-274

Ira Berlin has introduced the distinction between a slave society and a society with slaves, attributing these stern qualities to the former: “In slave societies . . . slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations: husband and wife...

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7 The Police State of Richmond

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pp. 275-308

Had the Confederacy been allowed to establish a new nation without hindrance, it would surely have been a slave republic, as the United States was already, only with a greater proportion of slaves in it. There was nothing in the Confederate Constitution to suggest otherwise. There was nothing in...

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8 State Rights in the Confederacy

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pp. 309-342

The critical study of Confederate history began only in 1925 with Frank L. Owsley’s State Rights in the Confederacy. Up to that time a nostalgic celebration of Confederate nationalism reigned in the South in the form of the Lost Cause myth. Owsley found fault with the myth, especially in its...

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EPILOGUE: Other Wars

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pp. 343-350

After the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, the U.S. Congress hastened to pass a resolution disavowing any radical aims in the war and affirming that the country was fighting only for the Constitution and the Union (and not with any intent “of overthrowing or interfering with...


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pp. 351-380


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pp. 381-398

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p. 399

Professor Jonathan W. White of Christopher Newport University read much of this book and offered valuable criticism. Moreover, he shared with me the results of his research on points he knew would be of interest to me. All of this was offered in a generous and cheerful way. Sylvia Neely...


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pp. 401-408

E-ISBN-13: 9781469602530
E-ISBN-10: 1469602539
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807835180
Print-ISBN-10: 0807835188

Page Count: 424
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Littlefield History of the Civil War Era
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OCLC Number: 770009268
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Constitutional history -- Confederate States of America.
  • Constitutional history -- United States.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Law and legislation.
  • Habeas corpus -- United States -- History.
  • Civil rights -- Confederate States of America -- History.
  • Lincoln, Abraham, -- 1809-1865 -- Views on the Constitution.
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