Lincoln’s nationalism helped save Union

PENN STATE (US) — Abraham Lincoln’s view of the U.S. Constitution played a more important role in preserving the Union during the Civil War than previously believed, a new book suggests.

In Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War, historian Mark Neely Jr. goes beyond the previous focus of historians on Lincoln and First Amendment freedoms and sees the iconic president in the broader context of nationalism.

“Lincoln’s nineteenth-century nationalism was not necessarily dangerous to the Constitution and the liberties it protects,” says Neely,  professor of history at Penn State. It was more positive—akin to the nationalism Benedict Anderson described in his book Imagined Communities.

“Lincoln’s nationalism was not the ‘near-pathological’ variety characterized by Anderson as driven by fear and hatred—there was no cult of personality, no attempt to vastly increase the power of the presidency, none of the usual evidence of dictatorships.”

Rather, Lincoln derived his opinions about the Constitution from his desire for national economic growth and federally supported internal improvements, his anti-slavery sentiments, and a general adherence to the political philosophy of the Whig party, a predecessor of the Republican Party.

Those nationalist principles, which Lincoln affirmed well before becoming president, required a broad interpretation of the Constitution that also was well suited to tolerate wartime stresses.

“Lincoln did not think of it in legalistic terms, but instead drew his ideas about the Constitution from sources outside the courtroom,” Neely says. “How he viewed the document ultimately helped save the nation.”

Perhaps the best example occurred in the fall of 1862, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in most Southern states. The Constitution said nothing about ending slavery. Considerable popular sentiment expressed satisfaction with it as a document that actually protected slavery, a view Lincoln himself at one time shared.

But he had since come round to the view that freeing the slaves was necessary to saving the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation, writes Neely, was “a triumph of nationalism over racism and the Constitution.”

Neely also examines the Confederate constitution. The book is the first study, within a single volume, of how both constitutions shaped the struggle for national survival.

The Confederate constitution was nearly identical to the U.S. Constitution except that it explicitly legalized slavery. It blended slave ownership with ideals of personal liberty in a way that most white Southerners found compatible, and thus was as much an asset to the South as the U.S. Constitution was to the North, Neely says.

The book draws heavily on sources previously underestimated by Civil War scholars, Neely says.

“What is new in this book comes from looking at what has been too often overlooked even in plain sight—judicial opinions, especially those from the lower courts, and pamphlets, a major form of political communication and debate that was particularly identifiable with the Civil War era.”

More news from Penn State: