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The Union Lincoln Made

Joshua Kleinfeld explores Lincoln’s attitudes towards the constitution and civil liberty during the Civil War, and finds their impact still reverberating in the US today.

Abraham Lincoln cherished the Union. When he swore in his presidential oath to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’, he vowed to make the American experiment in democracy succeed. In Lincoln’s view, the experiment could only succeed through the preservation of the Union without secession; he resolved to restore the rebellious states to the Union and all else would fall to this goal. But the war was very hard and very long, and war by its nature lowers the status of peripheral principles and elevates the central principles in dispute.

The pressure of the Civil War altered American values, elevating majority rule and equality at the expense of individual liberty and the rule of law. The country underwent a profound cultural and legal shift with consequences for contemporary America. This article explores Lincoln’s suspension of individual liberties and the argument on equality Gary Wills puts forth in his Pullitzer prize-winning book Lincoln at Gettysburg to answer an old question in a new way: What was America’s new face after the surgery of its bloodiest war?

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