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The American Revolution

The American Revolution was not a true revolution. Power did not transfer from one economic class to another. Merchants and plantation owners, many of whom signed the Declaration of Independence, decided it was time for the colonies to go into business for themselves rather than take orders from Great Britain. Everyday life, outside of the war, went on as usual. After the War of Independence, the South remained agricultural, the North industrial, and a tug of war continued between them regarding the rights of states as opposed to the rights of the federal government. Slaves were still slaves.

The Civil War represented a true revolution. The North won the power battle between the states and federal government. Power, in the form of full American citizenship, transferred to over four million former slaves. The Constitution’s framers wrote the document in flexible language that would allow it to adapt to conditions they could not forsee. They knew – not in the exact words, though – what scholars have noted; that a Constitution that can not bend will eventually break. Never before, and arguably never since, was the Constitution bent more than it was during Lincoln’s first term.

Congress authorized military conscription. By freeing the slaves, Lincoln violated the Constitution’s ban on bills of attainder; punishment of a man’s family for his misdeeds. (If a slaveholder is deprived of his property, his children lose part of their inheritance. ) Slaves were also property that could not be taken without due process of law. Lincoln, without Congress in session, authorized the printing of paper money to finance the war. In absence of a declaration of war, he ordered a naval blockade of Confederate ports, in violation of established international law. He ordered the Union army to disperse groups of

suspected Confederate sympathizers. Title / 3 “I will violate the Constitution, if necessary, to save the Union,” Lincoln said of his order for the printing of money without authorization from Congress. 1 He did not believe that the Constitution’s framers “intended that, in every case, (any) danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together. ” It is with regard to the suspension of writs of habeas corpus that Lincoln’s war measures remain controversial. Originally, their suspension came in response to the very likely possibility of Maryland seceding from the Union and leaving Washington D.

C. a Union enclave inside the Confederacy. The arrest and detention of Maryland rebels without charge, indefinitely, would prevent this. Lincoln, however, ordered General Winfield Scott, commander of field forces defending the capital, to suspend habeas corpus only as a last resort. He asked rhetorically: “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated? ” 2 Lincoln still feared blame for making too few arrests, not too many. Without habeas corpus, he ordered the arrest of prominent political opponent and Confederate ally Clement Laird

Vallandigham, possibly to send a message to other would-be rebels within the Union. Lincoln the lawyer, and politician, defended such actions in a roundabout way. “when, in cases of rebellion or Invasion, the public Safety requires them, which would not be constitutional when, in (the) absence of rebellion or Invasion, the public safety does not require them. ” 3 ______________ 1. Perritt, Lincoln’s War, p. 202. 2. Basler, Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 430. 3. Williams, Abraham Lincoln, p. 265. Title / 4 The Supreme Court’s Prize Cases ruling in 1862 validated Lincoln’s semi-constitutional war measures.

A civil war is not declared by Congress, ruled the Court. The party in rebellion breaks allegiance. It is thus the duty of the president to react “without waiting for Congress to baptize it (the war) with a name. ” 4 Lincoln later wrote that his war measures, “whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon, under what appeared to be a popular demand, and a public necessity; trusting, then as now, that Congress would readily ratify them. ” 5 For the times, when Congress could not be quickly called into emergency session as it can now, Lincoln set the bar dangerously high with regard to

what the president could do, and how quickly he could do it. It is unlikely, however, that any of Lincoln’s semi-constitutional war measures would have survived the war. Allen Guelzo writes of Lincoln’s “cautious constitutionalism,” noting that the Constitution granted the states no right to secede and thus gave the president no direction should any states secede. Lincoln, he notes, acted with prudence regarding even minor executive actions. Despite Democratic party claims, wartime arrests and limitations of civil liberties were few. 6 As an emergency war measure, he could have called off the presidential election of 1864,

but did not. In his second inaugural address, he promised to heal the re-united nation’s wounds “with malice towards none,” meaning none of the Union’s former Confederate enemies. _______________ 4. Williams, Abraham Lincoln, p. 258. 5. Basler, Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 429. 6. Guelzo, Apple Of Gold, in Borritt, The Lincoln Enigma, p. 104-105. Title / 5 The Constitution survived its greatest challenges to date. It bent, but didn’t break. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in December 1865, abolished slavery. The Fourteenth, ratified in 1868, re-defined citizenship to include former slaves. The Fifteenth, ratified in 1870, gave

former slaves the right to vote. Slaves could vote. That meant they had been freed. Slavery was unconstitutional. That meant it was not coming back. The agricultural, labor-intensive economy that had given the southern states political leverage in their congressional wars with the North was gone. The balance of power between North and South that had existed since the Confederation was permanently tipped in favor of the North. Eight years earlier, the Dred Scott decision had confirmed that slaves were property. Seemingly overnight, over four million former slaves could vote, travel freely, and own land,

after one of the most revolutionary transfers of power in world history. McPherson writes that the Civil War redefined liberty. Before the war, liberty meant freedom from government power, After the war, three Constitutional amendments redefined it as freedom of opportunity. Freedom from government thus gave way to freedom enforced by government. In this way, America was not weakened – that being too strong a term – but compromised, with the door opened for greater government presence (interference) in everyday life. In today’s America, as in simpler Civil War times, if the government has to remind its

people of their freedoms, they are not really free. Title / 6 Bibliography Basser, Roy P. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1953. Guelzo, Allen L. “Apple Of Gold In A Picture Of Silver: The Constitution And Liberty. ” In Borritt, Gabor. The Lincoln Enigma. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001. Perritt, Geoffrey. Lincoln’s War. New York, Random House, 2004. Williams, Frank J. “Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, Then And Now. ” In Simon, John Y. , Harold Holzer, Dawn Vogel. Lincoln Revisited. New York, Fordham University Press, 2007.

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