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Abraham Lincoln’s Influence on the Modern Supreme Court Understanding of Liberty and Equality

37 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2010 Last revised: 22 Jul 2011

Wilson Ray Huhn

Duquesne University - School of Law

Date Written: November 5, 2010


Abraham Lincoln had a profound effect on this country’s conception of itself and on the Constitution. He taught us that this nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In this article I seek to demonstrate how Lincoln’s understanding of the principles of liberty and equality is reflected in the decisions of the United States Supreme Court during the modern era.

Lincoln’s influence appears in several respects: substantively, methodologically, and philosophically. Substantively, Lincoln advocated liberty and equality for all persons, particularly with respect to self-government and education. The modern Supreme Court has expanded concepts of fundamental right to embrace all persons, including groups that have been historically discriminated against, and in particular has expanded equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to receive an education. Lincoln explicitly favored human rights over property rights. During the modern era the Court has responded to this principle in several ways: the Court has rejected the doctrine of economic substantive due process, recognized the individual’s Right to Privacy, and refined the State Action Doctrine in order to subject private parties to the dictates of the Constitution when they enlist the power of the government to oppress or exploit people.

Finally, in sympathy with Lincoln’s philosophy, the Court has embraced an understanding of our fundamental rights as “living truths” that must be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening” their influence on behalf of all people everywhere. The Constitution is not beholden to tradition – it is inspired by transcendent ideals that obligate us to define and apply anew to the problems of our age.

Keywords: Abraham Lincoln, Political Philosophy, Constitutional Law, Liberty, Equality, Modern Supreme Court

JEL Classification: K10, K19

Suggested Citation

Huhn, Wilson Ray, Abraham Lincoln’s Influence on the Modern Supreme Court Understanding of Liberty and Equality (November 5, 2010). Oklahoma City University Law Review, Forthcoming; University of Akron Legal Studies Research Paper 10-14. Available at SSRN:

Wilson Ray Huhn (Contact Author)

Duquesne University - School of Law ( email )

600 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15282
United States

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