Mark E. Neely Jr: Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation – An Excerpt

[This article is crossposted at]

The Civil War placed the U.S. Constitution under unprecedented—and, to this day, still unmatched—strain. In Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mark E. Neely Jr. examines for the first time in one book the U.S. Constitution and its often overlooked cousin, the Confederate Constitution, and the ways the documents shaped the struggle for national survival.

“This is a sweeping and majestic contribution by an author who has spent a lifetime studying and writing great volumes about Abraham Lincoln, our two-party system, nationalism, and civil liberties during the Civil War. Brilliantly written, Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War is one of the most original and important books on the war ever published. Mark Neely understands, as did President Lincoln, that the struggle for victory was a battle for the survival of the U.S. Constitution. The story told here should be required reading during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.”–Frank J. Williams, retired chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and chair of the Lincoln Forum

The following is an excerpt from Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War (pp. 16-17):


To highlight the utility of the Constitution in two great national efforts at once may sound triumphalist, but this book is not.  Few people—least of all Abraham Lincoln—could deny that the U.S. Constitution was a serious obstacle to emancipation, and Lincoln came to believe that emancipation was essential for winning the war.  Constitutional historians of the “adequate Constitution” school of thought would often simply rather not talk about emancipation, which makes the Constitution look quite inadequate.  The chapter on emancipation in this book, by contrast, is one of the two longest.

The neglect of the constitutional history of the Civil War in general is but part of a much larger problem, one that transcends the study of that conflict.  To find the equivalent of [James G.] Randall’s book [Constitutional Problems under Lincoln] for other American wars is not easy.  There is none for the War of 1812 or for the Mexican-American War.[1] Most modern work touching the constitutional history of American wars narrows the focus to civil liberties and the First Amendment or to the general question of presidential power.  In light of that overall neglect, the Civil War seems well served indeed, but the fact remains that there is no book that chronicles, let alone analyzes, the constitutional history of both the United States and the Confederate States in the Civil War.

Much has been lost by this failure to consider both of the American constitutions in the Civil War. Since the constitutions were markedly similar in content, the historian has the opportunity to see the document tested in two different societies at the same time. The opportunity for comparisons is unequaled in history. And ultimately our judgments on the role of the Constitution in war should appear doubly sound.

This book aims to remedy some of the problem of neglect, not by supplying a comprehensive history of the Constitution in the Civil War but by stimulating interest in the constitutional history of that war and, by implication, others as well. The aim is not to kill the subject with claims of “definitive” treatment but to prove that there was genuine drama in the constitutional history of the Civil War, the equal at times of its much-studied military history. The book argues that the drama went beyond the single question of civil liberties in times of war—the role of freedom of speech and the press—which has received extended treatment in modern times. The constitutional conflict in the Civil War reached the largest questions of national existence. Therefore this is a book about eh Constitution and about nationalism as well—hence the title “Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War.”



Mark E. Neely Jr. is McCabe-Greer Professor of Civil War History at Pennsylvania State University. He has written several books, including The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History. He is the author of Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War and The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era.

  1. [1]On the War of 1812, see the epilogue of this book.  See also Tutorow, The Mexican-American War: An Annotated Bibliography