Lincoln and the Constitution

How ought Americans to understand what rule “of the people, by the people, and for the people” means? Is American democracy characterized by the rule of the majority, understood as popular sovereignty, or is majority rule qualified by some other constitutional principle? “Lincoln and the Constitution” will explore the challenges to popular government raised in the years leading up to and during the Civil War, and how Abraham Lincoln answered those challenges by drawing on the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“Lincoln and the Constitution” materials include a series of short video discussions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation, grouped around four principle themes: Lincoln and the Slavery Question; Lincoln, Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief; Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address; Lincoln and the Reframing of America. In addition, brief biographical questions for thinking about and with each statesman, and links to primary texts and further scholarship are included.

This discussion guide and its related videos were created in conjunction with the What So Proudly We Hail, with support from The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


Session 1: Lincoln and the Slavery Question (with Diana Schaub and Lucas Morel)

Is the rule of the majority the heart of democracy? Or must the will of the majority be tempered by other considerations to fulfill the requirements of just government? Was the slavery question a territorial, political, racial, or moral question—or all combined? “Abraham Lincoln and the Slavery Question” will explore Lincoln’s constitutional approach to the problem of slavery in America and his response to the opposing arguments of the day.

1. Stephen Douglas’ Defense of Popular Sovereignty
2. Lincoln, Non-abolitionist
3. Lincoln’s Challenge to Dred Scott
4. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and White Public Opinion
5. Cooperstown Union Address: Lincoln’s Appeal to the Founders
6. Lincoln and Emancipation
7. Lincoln and Frederick Douglass


Session 2: Lincoln, Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief (with Diana Schaub, Ben Kleinerman, and Makubin Owens)

What obligations and powers do American presidents have to protect and preserve both the nation and its political institutions? How should presidents understand their duty both to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution?” “Abraham Lincoln, Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief” will explore what tensions exist between these two roles, and how Lincoln as a wartime president navigated the demands that a representative democracy places on its elected leader.

1. Lincoln, Secession, and the Right to Revolution
2. Emergency Powers and the Oath of Office
3. Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief and Military Strategist
4. Executive Power and the Emancipation Proclamation


Session 3: Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address (with Diana Schaub and Leon Kass)

What tasks must a republic—a system of government based on popular rule—fulfill to be and to remain healthy and successful? What is the greater challenge of statesmanship—founding a new political order, or maintaining and preserving one? “Lincoln and the Reframing of America” will explore how Lincoln sought to answer these questions in light of cultivating a reverence for the rule of law and a popular attachment to the American regime.

1. The Setting for the Gettysburg Address
2. “…Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”
3. “…Conceived in liberty…”
4. “…Of the people, by the people, and for the people…”



Session 4: Lincoln and the Reframing of America (withDiana Schaub,  Allen Guelzo, and Michael Zuckert)

What is the significance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? Is it a funeral oration, a victory speech, a policy pitch, or something more? Was Lincoln’s purpose to break with a tainted national past, or to redefine it? “Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address” will explore Lincoln’s interpretation of the American Founding, his understanding of the war as a test of that Founding, and the meaning of his appeal to all Americans to rededicate themselves to the “great task remaining” of perpetuating self-government.

1. Perpetuating Our Political Institutions: Lincoln’s Lyceum Address
2. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington
3. Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address
4. Lincoln’s “Sacred Effort”: The Second Inaugural
5. “Lincoln” the Movie and Lincoln the President



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