The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

By Mark E. Neely Jr. | Go to book overview

Introduction

"The Union with him in sentiment, rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism." With those words, Alexander H. Stephens, the former Confederate vice president, dismissed the constitutional ideas of Abraham Lincoln. To Stephens, Lincoln's almost superstitious love of the Union caused him to misunderstand its Constitution and to destroy the country's liberties. 1 Though Stephens's words are often quoted, Lincoln's constitutional views were neither mystical nor mysterious, and their nature should no longer be in doubt. The tedious historical debate over whether or not President Lincoln's policies were constitutional is a legacy of the brittle party platforms of a bygone era and the constitutional moralizing of sore losers like Stephens.

Rather than continue the fruitless debate over the constitutionality of Lincoln's acts, this book will examine instead the practical impact on civil liberties of the policies Lincoln developed to save the Union. The numerous arrests of civilians by Northern military authorities during the Civil War sparked controversy then and continue to do so. Except for a handful of celebrated cases, however, no one knows exactly who was arrested or how or when. No one knows whether the controversial suspension of the writ of habeas corpus had the results Lincoln intended. 2 Without ignoring what Lincoln and other major political protagonists of the day said, this book will focus on what they in fact did.

This might well be called writing constitutional history from the bottom up. The phrase is hardly original, but its application to constitutional history is somewhat novel. Naturally preoccupied with politicians, judges, and lawyers and what they have said, constitutional historians have rarely looked at what happened after those august persons spoke. In the case of the Civil War, no one has ever systematically examined records of civilians arrested by military authority after Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

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