Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

Introduction: Constitution and Revolution in the Civil War Era

THE UNITED STATES IS A REVOLUTIONARY NATION that lacks a tradition of revolutionary politics. In assuming the status of an independent people, Americans created republican governments and institutionalized the principles of the American Revolution in written constitutions of liberty. The purpose of republican constitutions was to enable the people to change their government through peaceful means of political persuasion rather than the methods of force and violence traditionally associated with changes of government. American political history is the story of reform movements and political realignments, not violent revolutionary transformations.1

If revolutionary violence has not been part of the American political tradition, the language of American politics nevertheless makes free use of the concept of revolution. Political reform movements as diverse as Jeffersonian democracy, New Deal liberalism, and Reagan- Republican conservatism have been characterized as revolutionary in nature. One is inclined to say that Americans' success in domesticating the right of revolution in the forms and procedures of constitutionalism has given them--or pundits and professors who analyze politics on their behalf--a license to employ the vocabulary of revolution loosely and imprecisely, if not irresponsibly.

In view of the significance of the right of revolution in modern political thought, however, greater precision should be used in describing and analyzing revolution as a form of political action. Moreover, if it is a requirement of historical analysis to understand historical actors as they understood themselves, as I believe it is, then it is important to determine whether political action that is

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1
Richard J. Ellis, American Political Cultures ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 151-75.

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