The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

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

10

Lincoln and
the Constitution

The Democratic depiction of Lincoln as a tyrant was to have more influence on history than it merited, but like many political caricatures, it contained a certain element of truth. To be sure, there was nothing of the dictator in Lincoln, who stood for reelection in 1864 and, until General Sherman captured Atlanta, genuinely feared that he would lose the presidency. But he did not by habit think first of the constitutional aspect of most problems he faced. His impulse was to turn to the practical.


Whig Heritage

Lincoln had been a Whig for most of the life of that political party -- twice as long as he was a Republican. And the Whigs generally took a broad view of what the Constitution allowed the federal government to do (create a national bank and fund the building of canals, roads, and railroads, for example). As a victim of rural isolation and lack of economic opportunity in his youth, Abraham Lincoln proved eager as a politician to provide the country with those things that seemed wanting in his hardscrabble past. His desire to get on with economic development made him impatient with Democratic arguments that internal improvements funded by the federal government were unconstitutional.

After years of political struggle to implement improvement schemes, Lincoln, as a congressman in the late 1840s, saw "the question of improvements . . . verging to a final crisis." The Democratic national platform in 1848 declared that "the constitution does not confer upon the general government the power to commence, and carry on a general system of internal improvements." Speaking on the subject in the House of Representatives, the 39-year-old Lincoln

-210-

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The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents ix
  • Introduction xi
  • 1 - Actions Without Precedent 3
  • 2 - Missouri and Martial Law 32
  • 3 - Low Tide for Liberty 51
  • 4 - Arrests Move South 75
  • 5 - The Dark Side of the Civil War 93
  • 6 - Numbers and Definitions 113
  • 7 - The Revival of International Law 139
  • 8 - The Irrelevance of the Milligan Decision 160
  • 9 - The Democratic Opposition 185
  • 10 - Lincoln and the Constitution 210
  • Epilogue 223
  • Notes 237
  • Index of Prisoners of State 269
  • Index 273
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