Stephen D. Engle: IL Governor Richard Yates and the Union’s Cooperative Federalism

Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union's War Governors by stephen engleToday we welcome a guest post from Stephen D. Engle, author of Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union’s War Governors. In this rich study of Union governors and their role in the Civil War, Engle examines how these politicians were pivotal in securing victory. In a time of limited federal authority, governors were an essential part of the machine that maintained the Union while it mobilized and sustained the war effort. Charged with the difficult task of raising soldiers from their home states, these governors had to also rally political, economic, and popular support for the conflict, at times against a backdrop of significant local opposition.

In today’s post, Engle discusses how we should view the American Civil War as a lesson in cooperative federalism.


On July 11, 1862, Illinois governor Richard Yates sent Abraham Lincoln a letter expressing his frustration with what appeared to be an administration paralyzed by limited war aims that were conciliatory toward Confederates, embraced conservative military commanders, and failed to emancipate enemy slaves or enlist black troops in the conflict. Yates lectured the president on why appointing more aggressive commanders, liberating slaves, and using all male troops of military age were needed to weaken the Confederacy and quickly bring an end to the war.

“Mr. Lincoln,” Yates declared, “the crisis demands greater efforts and sterner measures. Proclaim anew the good old motto of the republic—liberty and union now and forever one & inseparable and accept the services of all loyal men.”

Yates’s letter went public and several newspapers ran front-page coverage of his demands of the president. “Well done, Governor Yates,” declared the Chicago Tribune, “you lead the van.” Yates’s views signaled a radical departure from the Union’s war aims, and yet his appeal was favorably received by many of his gubernatorial colleagues.

Governors asserting themselves in ways that strengthened the Union was the cornerstone of the cooperative federalism that emerged in the Civil War North and contributed to a Union victory. If it is true, as some scholars have asserted in the last 150 years, that the Confederacy died of Democracy, it might also be said that the Union lived because of it.

In a time where we are consumed by analyzing the shortcomings of federalism in a modern age, we would be wise to look to the American Civil War as a lesson in cooperative federalism. The unprecedented conflict provided northerners with the opportunity to demonstrate that they had more rights in the Union than outside of it and they were willing to fight to preserve and vindicate the democratic republic that allowed them such privileges.

Stephen D. Engle is professor of history at Florida Atlantic University and director of the Alan B. and Charna Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency.  Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union’s War Governors is now available.