Review of “Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War” by Mark E. Neely Jr.

The subtitle of this book, “Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War”, is much more descriptive of its content than its actual title. Only the first third of the book deals with Lincoln’s actions, and even then, much of the constitutional analysis applies to the writings of Lincoln’s contemporaries like Horace Binney, William Whiting, and Sidney George Fisher. In any event, the book’s focus is on the constitutional issues faced by not only the North, but also the issues faced by the Confederate States under their constitution.


The most important question faced by both the North and the South was whether the Southern states could constitutionally withdraw from the Union. Unfortunately, the Constitution itself had nothing to say on the matter. By contrast, even the “feeble” Articles of Confederation had claimed the Union was perpetual. In his inaugural address, Lincoln skirted the constitutional issue, and relied instead on a legal argument: if the Union was merely a contractual arrangement among the states, the South could not unilaterally rescind that contract by secession—it required the assent of the other parties to the contract. Lincoln also contended that the nation antedated the Constitution:

Having never been states, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of “state rights,” asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself?…The states have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law, and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever of independence and liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the states, and, in fact, it created them as states.”

This claim had the advantage of adopting the Declaration of Independence, with its expression that all men were created equal, as a founding document. Famously, Lincoln solidified this vision at Gettysburg, declaring that the nation was created “four score and seven years ago” (the time of the Declaration of Independence) rather than “three score and sixteen years ago” (the time of the adoption of the Constitution).

Lincoln’s construction was not without precedent. In fact, the first Supreme Court Justice, James Wilson, wrote in Chisholm v. Georgia (2 US 419, 465, 1793):

Whoever considers, in a combined and comprehensive view, the general texture of the Constitution will be satisfied that the people of the United states intended to form themselves into a nation for national purposes. They instituted for such purposes a national government, complete in all its parts, with powers legislative, executive and judicial, and in all those powers extending over the whole nation. Is it congruous that, with regard to such purposes, any man or body of men, any person natural or artificial, should be permitted to claim successfully an entire exemption from the jurisdiction of the national government?”

Lincoln also was savvy enough to be aware of the cultural negotiation of both history and memory, and that he could use his facility with words to reframe both of them.

Lincoln deliberately avoided subjecting the question of secession to any court rulings. Instead, the constitutionality of secession was to be decided in presidential speeches, spirited newspaper editorials, widely read pamphlets, and on the battlefield.

1861 tribute to commander of Union forces Gen. Winfield Scott, shown as the mythical Hercules slaying the many-headed dragon or hydra, here symbolizing the secession of the Confederate states.

1861 tribute to commander of Union forces Gen. Winfield Scott, shown as the mythical Hercules slaying the many-headed dragon or hydra, here symbolizing the secession of the Confederate states.

Lincoln did not trust the Supreme Court at that time. The Court was led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the architect of the infamous Dred Scott decision, about which Lincoln had bruited powerful critiques. Lincoln wanted to avoid giving Taney the opportunity to turn the Court’s authority against him, because the constitutionality of other important issues loomed as well, such as the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the power to emancipate the slaves, and the power of the federal government to conscript members of the state militias. Taney had expended significant thought on some of these issues, and Neely says he was “itching to weigh in” on them. He never had the chance, however, because none of them ever reached the Supreme Court during the war.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

During the Civil War, the writ of habeas corpus was used to attempt to free two groups of prisoners: (1) “political prisoners,” those jailed for inciting desertion by troops or otherwise “hurting the [Union] army” and (2) underage soldiers who changed their minds about serving in the army. Article I, section 9, clause 2 of the Constitution stated: “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” It does not, however, say who or which branch of government (e.g. Congress, the President, Courts) is authorized to do the suspending. Lincoln simply arrogated the power. In the process, he ignored the opinion of Chief Justice Taney in the Ex parte Merryman case, in which Taney opined that only Congress, not the President, could suspend the writ. [Note that Merryman was not an opinion of the full Supreme Court; rather it was simply a writ issued by Taney pursuant to the Court’s original jurisdiction in habeas corpus cases for federal prisoners.] Lincoln’s decision to ignore Taney’s opinion was never tested in court. It became moot at the end of the war.


Lincoln believed emancipation of the slaves was important for the war effort. However, the Constitution seemed to recognize slaveholders’ property rights in their slaves, and the 5th amendment guaranteed those rights could not be abridged without due process of law. Arguably, the war powers clause authorized the president to commandeer the property of the nation’s opponents, but that right was thought to be limited to actions necessary for victory or the safety of the soldiers. Lincoln could not prove that emancipation was necessary—only that it was useful. Nonetheless, the Proclamation was issued as soon as Lincoln thought it was politically feasible, and it was never challenged in court.

Interestingly, Lincoln feared that the racism of his own troops might render the Proclamation a disadvantage to the Union cause. In the event, the nationalism of the troops trumped (temporarily, at least) whatever racism was prevalent, and the Proclamation did not sow significant dissension in the ranks.


The Union’s power to confiscate Confederate ships pursuant to its blockade was the only major constitutional issue adjudicated by the Supreme Court during the war. Prize Cases of 1863 (67 U.S. (2 Black) 635) questioned whether Lincoln acted within his presidential power when he ordered the blockade of Southern ports in April of 1861, authorizing the seizure of vessels from which revenues could not be collected on account of the “insurrection.” The owners of merchant vessels affected by the blockade sued for the restoration of their property on the ground that blockades were only legal in wartime, but no war had been declared by Congress, as mandated by the Constitution. Lincoln himself refused to recognize the conflict as a “war” (with its implication of two sovereign nations in dispute) rather than a “rebellion” or “insurrection.” In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the hecatomb taking place could not be ignored. It was just too massive. War may not have been formally declared, but the Court claimed to know a war when it saw one. In the words of Justice Robert C. Grier, “As a civil war is never publicly proclaimed eo nomine against insurgents, its actual existence is a fact in our domestic history which the court is bound to notice and to know.”

Justice Robert Cooper Grier

Justice Robert Cooper Grier

Neely calls this decision “the most important Supreme Court decision of the Civil War.” Not only did the Court opine that the war could not be ignored as a fact, but it also disagreed on whether a civil war had to be publicly declared by Congress. James M. Carlisle, representing the ship-owners, insisted that “a war was something declared by Congress, period.” He averred:

The matter then comes back necessarily to the pure question of the power of the President under the Constitution. And this is, perhaps, the most extraordinary part of the argument for the United States. It is founded upon a figure of speech, which is repugnant to the genius of republican institutions, and above all, to our written Constitution.”

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., for the government, countered with the winning argument that war was “a state of things” and “not an act of legislative will.”

It’s a fascinating case, and still is relevant today. [For example, does the current confrontation with Al Qaeda trigger the president’s war powers?]

The Democrats also mounted an attack on the government’s war measures in state courts, where they expected a friendlier reaction than in federal courts. Their effort was unsuccessful, according to Neely, because the war ended before the cases could be resolved. He states, “[T]he nation was saved from violent confrontation with willful judges by the slowness with which the wheels of justice turned in the middle of the nineteenth century.”

More than 30% of the book is devoted to the issues faced by the Confederate states under their constitution. The Confederacy was formed by a process nearly identical to the process that formed the original United States. Each rebellious state held a “constitutional convention” that was outside of and in addition to its established state government. Neely asserts that the elections for the secession conventions were especially clean by the standard of the time, with a distinct absence of fraud or strong-arm tactics. The movement to secede, in Neely’s words, was “profoundly democratic.” [It might be suggested that because of the near unanimity of the sentiments of those attending the conventions, there was no need for fraud. However, fraud returned to southern elections in full flower after the war ended, especially with the prospect of freed black men and other republicans gaining political office.]


Although the Confederate constitution borrowed heavily from the federal constitution, each seceding state retained more autonomy under it than it had under the federal constitution—no surprise there. The government that resulted was not highly authoritarian, as one might expect from one led by slaveholders. Rather, it was very democratic in the sense the modern Israeli government is democratic: its constitution speaks of giving all its adult citizens equal rights [the Confederacy limited those rights to males], yet it blithely ignores the presence of a large minority who live within its jurisdiction, but who are accorded few if any rights.

The secession conventions produced constitutional crises of their own. Both the formerly legitimate state governments and the secession conventions continued to act, each ostensibly the sovereign power. Thus, every southern state had two separate governments claiming ultimate authority. Nevertheless, with the exception of South Carolina, the states resolved the problem pretty much without rancor and never with violence. Neely writes,

…some states simply enjoyed the fruits of the emergency actions of the conventions, including the democratization of war by ensuring that the men who fought for the slaveholding republic…could vote in [military] camp….Had the Confederacy prevailed…it would doubtless celebrate that period of government by secession conventions as the United States does today the 1787 Philadelphia constitutional convention.”

Neely raises interesting questions in comparing the Confederate and federal constitutions. For example, why did the Confederacy chose to emulate the federal form so closely? (The President even had a “white house” of his own.) He also notes that Jefferson Davis, like Lincoln, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and even (near the end of the war) – out of desperation – considered arming at least some of the slaves.

White House of the Confederacy in Richmond

White House of the Confederacy in Richmond

Part of Davis’s problem was that the central government of the Confederacy was not as strong or centralized as that of the Union. Although there were Confederate national courts, there was no Supreme Court. The founders of the Confederacy were always troubled by their need to accommodate state rights with an expanded federal authority necessary to fight a war. Southern governors jealously guarded their state militias, and did not necessarily want them subject to conscription into the national army. The issue of conscription was tested in several state courts. Some lower courts found conscription illegal, but all the state supreme courts upheld its legality on appeal. Curiously, the Confederate national courts seem never to have organized a reporting system; thus their national courts never could exert their proper influence on state decisions.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

Neely observes that the Confederacy faced issues remarkably similar to those faced by the United States in the War of 1812. There, the New England states opposed the use by the federal government of New England militias to launch an invasion of Canada.

He concludes by exhorting his fellow historians to begin a “series of titles, beginning with ‘Constitutional Problems under Madison’ and stretching through all of our wars until we have accumulated a shelf of volumes that reconsider the role of the Constitution in America’s wars.”

Evaluation: In only 349 pages, this book contains some very meaty legal analysis. Moreover, even though there is a paucity of case law during the relevant time period, the book also contains some very thoughtful constitutional analysis of issues faced by both the Union and the Confederacy. Interestingly, much of the contemporary analysis came from newspaper editorials and impressively trenchant political pamphlets. Neely’s scholarly prose is readable despite the density of his subject matter, and he avoids sounding too lawyerly. I highly recommend this book for anyone with a serious interest in our constitutional history.

Rating: 4/5

Note: The author won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. This book was awarded the Lincoln Group of New York Award of Achievement for 2011.

Published by The University of North Carolina Press, 2011


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