'These Great and Beautiful Republics of the Dead': Public Constitutionalism and the Antebellum Cemetery

70 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2013 Last revised: 9 Sep 2014

Date Written: August 12, 2013


“Public Constitutionalism and the Antebellum Cemetery” joins the growing literature on public constitutionalism by focusing on the seventy addresses given at cemetery dedications from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story’s address at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831, through the addresses of Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in November 1863. The addresses were part of a vibrant public discussion of constitutional principles, which spanned such diverse occasions as July Fourth celebrations, arguments in great constitutional cases (like Daniel Webster’s Dartmouth College argument), dedication of public monuments (like Daniel Webster’s speech at the placement of the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument in 1824), lyceum addresses, and college literary society lectures. For Americans, especially those of the Whig Party, the Constitution was a key component of culture and a key unifier of the nation.

Rural cemeteries provided support for such constitutional values. They brought beauty and order to the landscape; they served to mediate an impersonal, commercial world and brought uplift through the lessons of morality and patriotism that people learned when they visited the cemeteries. The cemetery supported constitutional values of Union, respect for property, and obedience to the rule of law. For visitors to the cemetery learned about the importance of each of those values at the cemetery. It was an instructor of values; its ordered lanes and graves also served as a sign of the health of the Christian republic. For the cemetery fulfilled duties owed the past. The cemetery inspired sentiments of love of family and country. People would leave the cemetery inspired to preserve the United States as a Christian republic. Finally, these abstract ideas were promoted through private charitable corporations. Those private organizations brought the community together to promote the republic.

The cemeteries were, thus, one important institution – along with the schools, churches, civic associations, and businesses – that helped create and preserve the Union. The cemetery dedication addresses, like other addresses designed to promulgate constitutional ideas, mixed appeals to economics, morality, religion, and political theory with legal and constitutional ideas. Rural cemeteries promoted Whig constitutional ideals about order, patriotism, and Union. Those values were at the center of the debate over the response to secession and they were put into practice by soldiers along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg in 1863. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, thus, reflects the appeals to sentiment and Constitution that were so frequently invoked in the thirty years before the War.

This article reveals an important and neglected role of oratory in disseminating constitutional ideas, as well as the significance of rural cemeteries to public constitutional thought. This hidden history reveals how those ideas mobilized support for Union and, thus, how public constitutional thought affects the actions of voters, jurists, and politicians.

Keywords: popular constitutionalism, constitutional culture, Lincoln, cemetery, oratory

Suggested Citation

Brophy, Alfred L., 'These Great and Beautiful Republics of the Dead': Public Constitutionalism and the Antebellum Cemetery (August 12, 2013). UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2304305, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2304305 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2304305

Alfred L. Brophy (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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