A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution

By Harold M. Hyman | Go to book overview
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Chapter V
The Shock of Power

I n comparison with ways that Europeans and Latin Americans then took for granted were necessary to wage wars, especially civil wars, and with the harsher standards of the mid-twentieth century, Civil War America remained an astonishingly free and open society. This openness helps to explain why unprecedentedly vigorous governmental actions occasioned such surprise. Freedom without restraint was habitual; freedom coexisting with power surprised a generation habituated to belief that such coexistence was impossible.

Almost totally civilian in habits and local in orientation, Americans were simply unready for the spectacle of "national" soldiers--even hastily uniformed neighbors--performing police functions. From the days after Sumter all through 1861, arrests of civilians by soldiers and suspensions of the revered though little understood privilege of habeas corpus were the most visible evidences of war. Indeed, for a year after the War began, little else occurred to hold popular attention. Secession and the Sumter crisis had whetted the public's appetite for high drama in the daily news. But the military actions did not sustain that tempo; the augmenting naval blockage was invisible offshore. As a result, interest focused on the internal-security improvisations of the Lincoln Administration.

Unrestrained journalism, unfettered communications, and unsubdued opposition politics attended to the "arbitrary arrests" of "political prisoners" and of "prisoners of state," and their incarcerations in "American Bastilles." There, military commis

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A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution
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