March 10, 1863 – The Supreme Court Decides Prize Cases as Reported by “Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War” by Mark E. Neely Jr.

The subtitle of this book on Lincoln, “Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War,” is much more descriptive of its content than the main 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 own constitution. It gives considerable coverage to the major constitutional issue adjudicated by the Supreme Court during the Civil War, i.e., Prize Cases, as explained below.

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The first 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.

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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.

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The Union’s power to confiscate Confederate ships pursuant to its blockade was the constitutional issue that was ruled upon 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 threat by terrorists 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.]

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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

March 4, 1861 – Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

As the clock struck noon on March 4, 1861, President James Buchanan and President-elect Abraham Lincoln left the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in a horse-drawn carriage bound for the Capitol and Lincoln’s first inauguration. Buchanan then took his seat in the front row along with Senator Stephen Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney. Lincoln’s friend Senator Edward Baker introduced Lincoln, who spoke prior to being sworn in as President.

Photo from Lincoln's first inauguration

Photo from Lincoln’s first inauguration

In his inaugural address, Lincoln focused on shoring up his support in the North without further alienating the South, where he was almost universally hated or feared. He tried to calm the anxieties of Southerners, denying any plan on the part of the Lincoln administration to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it existed. He also distanced himself from the Republican Party’s rejection of the Fugitive Slave Law, averring that he felt compelled, under the Constitution, to enforce all laws.

Initially, Lincoln’s address had been bellicose. His Secretary of State, William Seward, urged Lincoln to soften its tone. As Doris Kearns Goodwin observes in Team of Rivals, “Seward’s revisions are evident in nearly every paragraph. He qualified some, removed rough edges in others.”

William Seward

William Seward

For the concluding paragraph, Seward suggested “some words of affection – some of calm and cheerful confidence.” Seward proposed the following paragraph:

I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

Lincoln polished it up, and as Goodwin opines, “proceeded to recast and sharpen Seward’s patriotic sentiments into a concise and powerful poetry.” He words were:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

At the end of Lincoln’s address, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administered the presidential oath of office, swearing in Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln was fifty-two years old.

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March 2, 1861 – President Buchanan Signs the Corwin Amendment

On this date in history, President James Buchanan affixed his signature to a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 36th Congress. If ratified, the amendment – to be the 13th – would have shielded “domestic institutions of the states” (i.e., slavery) from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress. Specifically, it read:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Over 200 resolutions dealing with slavery were proposed in the 36th Congress, most having the intent of averting a Civil War. This particular amendment was introduced by Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio in the House of Representatives and Senator William H. Seward of New York in the Senate. The House approved Corwin’s text on February 28, 1861, and the Senate adopted it with no changes on March 2, 1861. Outgoing President James Buchanan signed it the same day.

Representative Thomas Corwin, 1831-1840 and 1859-1862

Representative Thomas Corwin, 1831-1840 and 1859-1862

Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, said of the Corwin Amendment:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service….holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Although we like to pretend this particular 13th Amendment never was passed, and/or never endorsed by Lincoln, in fact both events occurred. History professor Daniel Crofts has argued that Lincoln wished, in his inaugural address, to challenge the key Southern claim that the North was bent on destroying slavery.

Abraham Lincoln delivered his first Inaugural Address on the East Portico of the Capitol

Abraham Lincoln delivered his first Inaugural Address on the East Portico of the Capitol

Ohio and Maryland’s legislatures ratified the amendment and Illinois’ state constitutional convention did the same. Had the Civil War not intervened, the proposed 13th Amendment would likely have been ratified by the required three-quarters of the states.

October 15, 1860 – Lincoln Gets Fashion Advice from an 11-Year-Old Girl

On this day in history, 11-year-old Grace Bedell in Westfield, New York sent Lincoln a letter advising him that a beard would help him get elected as President of the United States.

August 13, 1860 The last beardless photo of Lincoln. 

August 13, 1860
The last beardless photo of Lincoln. 

Lincoln wrote back on October 19, thanking Grace for her letter and began growing a beard. After he was elected, he took an inaugural journey by train from Illinois to Washington, D.C., and stopped in Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York. There, Lincoln asked to meet Grace Bedell.

November 25, 1860 One month after Bedell's letter. 

November 25, 1860
One month after Bedell’s letter. 

The February 19, 1861 edition of the “New York World” recounted the meeting as follows:

At Westfield an interesting incident occurred. Shortly after his nomination Mr. Lincoln had received from that place a letter from a little girl, who urged him, as a means of improving his personal appearance, to wear whiskers. Mr. Lincoln at the time replied, stating that although he was obliged by the suggestion, he feared his habits of life were too fixed to admit of even so slight a change as that which letting his beard grow involved. To-day, on reaching the place, he related the incident, and said that if that young lady was in the crowd he should be glad to see her. There was a momentary commotion, in the midst of which an old man, struggling through the crowd, approached, leading his daughter, a girl of apparently twelve or thirteen years of age, whom he introduced to Mr. Lincoln as his Westfield correspondent. Mr. Lincoln stooped down and kissed the child, and talked with her for some minutes. Her advice had not been thrown away upon the rugged chieftain. A beard of several months’ growth covers (perhaps adorns) the lower part of his face. The young girl’s peachy cheek must have been tickled with a stiff whisker, for the growth of which she was herself responsible.”

February 9, 1861 Ten days before seeing Grace Bedell en route to his Inauguration

February 9, 1861
Ten days before seeing Grace Bedell en route to his Inauguration

You can read a copy of both letters here.

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August 21, 1858 – The First Lincoln-Douglas Debate

On this day in history, the first debate between senatorial contenders Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place in Ottawa, Illinois. They each gave incredibly long speeches, allowing rebuttals as well as questions from the audience, and yet between 10,000 and 12,000 people stood in attendance throughout the whole afternoon. A word search reveals 57 occurrences of laughter; no doubt this was essential to the process!

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In this debate, Lincoln strongly expressed his loathing of slavery:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska – and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites – causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Lincolns arguments are subtle and astute, as when he asserts that the ostensibly neutrality of the concept of “popular sovereignty” is deceptive:

What is Popular Sovereignty? Is it the right of the people to have Slavery or not have it, as they see fit, in the territories? I will state – and I have an able man to watch me – my understanding is that Popular Sovereignty, as now applied to the question of slavery, does allow the people of a Territory to have slavery if they want to, but does not allow them not to have it if they do not want it.”

You can read the full text of the remarks of both Lincoln and Douglas here.

Review of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” by Eric Foner

Writing in the New York Times Book Review about this book, David S. Reynolds asked “Do we need yet another book on Lincoln….?” To summarize his answer, it is: yes, if the author is Eric Foner. I absolutely agree with that assessment.

Foner is a first-rate historian and an expert on this period in history. His book on Reconstruction (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877) is considered the standard, and is mesmerizing. For The Fiery Trial, Foner narrows his historical lenses to get to the heart of the controversy over Lincoln’s stand on slavery: was he pulled along by northern radicals, or did he step out in front of them? Was his endless procrastination intentional for political reasons? Was he, in the final analysis, a racist?

Before the Civil War, Foner contends, Lincoln expressed racial views typical of northerners of his time. That is, while he didn’t believe in the institution of slavery, neither did he desire to associate with blacks. As he told a delegation of five black men invited to the White House in 1862:

… there is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us…. I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

Like Henry Clay, his political idol, Lincoln was in favor of colonization, i.e., sending blacks to live in “their native land” of Africa. (Although almost all blacks at this time were actually born in America, they were not considered to be “Americans” but rather, were thought of as aliens best situated elsewhere.)

It took Lincoln a very long time to stop pushing for colonization. It was not until the middle of the Civil War that he finally gave up the idea. Foner explains that the evolution of Lincoln’s thought on this matter occurred in part because by this time he had encountered quite a few intelligent blacks who disabused him of his prejudices; in part because of the valuable and courageous service of blacks on behalf of the Union in the Northern Army (some 200,000 by the war’s end); and in part because blacks themselves had no interest in signing up for any colonization plan.

Lincoln was also greatly influenced by some of the “radical republicans” in Congress, including Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who in many ways is also a hero of this story.

Senator Charles Sumner

And indeed, this change in thinking by Lincoln demonstrates the core of why Foner considers Lincoln great: his capacity and willingness to change. As Foner emphasizes, on issue after issue, Lincoln came to occupy positions formulated by the abolitionists but previously rejected by him; his openness, and compassion, and intelligence allowed him to grow with the job and attain greatness.

One explanation for why it took Lincoln so long to gravitate to the positions of the abolitionists was his belief in the sacredness of the law as the most important embodiment of the experiment of democracy in which America was engaged. Thus he always believed that – while he personally abhorred the institution – slavery was a matter for the states to address (unless of course a constitutional amendment altered that situation). His objections to slavery all through the period prior to his presidential election only applied to new territories. Further, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it only applied to those states over which he could legitimately exercise war powers. Therefore, contrary to myth, not all slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation; bondage in the north and in the border states was left undisturbed.

Abraham Lincoln, November 8, 1863, Alexander Gardner photograph

Abraham Lincoln, November 8, 1863, Alexander Gardner photograph

Another factor was Lincoln’s strategy for keeping the Union together and winning the war: as Commander-in-Chief, he was loathe to take any action that could drive the border states into the Confederacy. He also was careful not to alienate racist northern soldiers, who would fight to save the Union, but not to free the blacks. And in fact, he understood full well that slavery continued in the United States only with, and because of, the complicity of the North, whether in order to preserve the Union, or out of more racist and/or venal concerns. It is for this reason that in his second inaugural address he uses the phrase “American slavery” and admonishes the North to “judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Although we can’t of course know what was in Lincoln’s heart, it is clear that he had a considerable number of strategic reasons not to push the issue beyond what public opinion would allow. [As Frederick Douglass said later, “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, p. 921]

With the capitulation of Richmond on April 3, 1865, Lincoln could finally turn to the question of what to do about the blacks who would now be free and hoping to integrate into society. But he didn’t have much chance to consider it; he was killed less than two weeks later.

Last photograph of Lincoln, taken February 5, 1865

Evaluation: There is something so compelling about the history of the Civil War and about Lincoln. This period in history has all the elements of great drama: epic sweep, passionate engagement, life and death decision-making, and characters for the ages. Eric Foner knows how to tell this history in the gripping manner it deserves, without any conjecturing, speculating, axe-grinding, tediousness or other practices that characterize lesser historians. This book helps us understand what a tortured and convoluted process it is to make a social revolution, and the mettle of the man it takes to lead it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2010

Note: Eric Foner was awarded the $50,000 Lincoln Prize for this book as well as the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History and the Bancroft Prize.

April 13, 1743 – Birthdate of Thomas Jefferson & Tribute by Abraham Lincoln

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. In 1775 he was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence, and in 1800 he defeated John Adams to become the third president of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

In 1859, Abraham Lincoln was invited to speak in Boston at a birthday celebration on April 13 in honor of the late Jefferson’s birthday. Writing from Springfield on April 6, 1859, Lincoln declined the invitation, but used the occasion to comment on the current strife in the country:

Bearing in mind that about seventy years ago, two great political parties were first formed in this country, that Thomas Jefferson was the head of one of them, and Boston the head-quarters of the other, it is both curious and interesting that those supposed to descend politically from the party opposed to Jefferson should now be celebrating his birthday in their own original seat of empire, while those claiming political descent from him have nearly ceased to breathe his name everywhere.

Remembering too, that the Jefferson party were formed upon its supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior, and then assuming that the so-called democracy of to-day, are the Jefferson, and their opponents, the anti-Jefferson parties, it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.

. . .

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.
And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard–the miners, and sappers–of returning despotism.

We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.”

You can read his entire letter here.

Abraham Lincoln in October, 1959

Abraham Lincoln in October, 1959