The Great Interpreter
First Things, 2015, Forthcoming
8 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2015
Date Written: April 15, 2015
This essay examines the constitutional legacy of President Abraham Lincoln, the most important constitutional interpreter in our nation's history. The Civil War was -- in addition to so much else -- a defining act of national constitutional interpretation. The war was fought over fundamental questions of the Constitution's meaning, and over who would have final authority to determine that meaning. The most significant issues of antebellum constitutional dispute -- the present and future status of slavery; the question of who possessed constitutional power to determine that status; the nature of the "Union" and the question of whether a state lawfully could secede; matters of national-versus-state constitutional supremacy and "sovereignty" -- received their final "adjudication" not in any court of law but on the battlefields of the Civil War. It was the case of Grant v. Lee, reduced to final judgment at Appomattox Court House 150 years ago, that constituted the nation's determination of these issues, and that determined also the entire constitutional future of the United States. None of this would have happened had Lincoln not considered himself bound by his oath to advance his independent constitutional views concerning Dred Scott, slavery, Union, national constitutional supremacy, and presidential military powers -- views that frequently placed him at odds not only with the views of nearly half the nation, but often with the Supreme Court as well.
Keywords: civil war, slavery, Lincoln, constitutional interpretation, civil rights, constitutional law, constitutional history
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