In his study Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, James McPherson states that more national authority helps protect liberty. What does he mean by this? How does more national authority protect the freedom of the American people after the Civil War?
When James McPherson discusses the importance of “national authority” in his speeches and writings about President Lincoln and the Civil War, he is employing a relatively common term still used today to denote the centralized seat of government, specifically, the Chief Executive and those in the presidential line of succession. The phrase “national command authority” is used in discussions of national security to refer mainly to the president of the United States in his or her capacity as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces with the constitutional authority to respond to crises and to project military force to address threats, “foreign and domestic.” The Oath of Office routinely administered to public servants, especially those elected by the public or confirmed by the Senate, specifically states that the official for whom the oath is being administered does “solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .” Focus, now on that latter phrase: “foreign or domestic.” The viability of the nation hinges on its ability to remain a cohesive unit, a challenge for which a strong “national authority” is required. It is in this context that McPherson quotes Lincoln, addressing a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861, stating with regard to the imperative of securing “our popular government”:
"Two points in it, our people have already settled--the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains--its successful lmaintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it." If that attempt succeeded, said Lincoln, the forces of reaction in Europe would smile in smug satisfaction at this proof of their contention that the upstart republic launched in 1776 could not last. [Jefferson Lecture, March 27, 2000]
In another speech, dated January 3, 2004, McPherson similarly noted Lincoln’s commitment to the “The restoration of the National authority throughout all the States” as essential for the preservation of the Union. Absent the ability of the national command authority to project its influence throughout the entirety of the nation, that nation could not sustain itself. To the extent that the national authority enjoys the legitimacy of the public it purports to represent, and to the extent that public enjoys the rights and privileges commensurate with the liberal democratic tradition inscribed in the Constitution, then the national authority protects those liberties.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, and in the decades that followed, the preeminence of the national authority continued to guarantee – albeit sometimes belatedly – the liberties that defined the United States of America. The American South continued for a century following the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War to resist the expansion of fundamental liberties to that portion of the population that was of African ancestry. Absent the political legitimacy enjoyed by the federal government and its power to exert its authority throughout the nation, those liberties would not have been protected.