Lyman Trumbull and the Fateful Paradox of the War for the Union
This paper considers Lyman Trumbull as a case study in how Republican leaders and intellectuals embraced a new understanding of their polity as they scrambled to save it during the Civil War. An adequate solution to the problem of secession and slavery required a much broader reconceptualization of the political system as a whole. But most Republicans did not see it this way at the time. They sincerely believed that the conservative and revolutionary elements of their agenda were not only compatible but complimentary, a belief that arose almost automatically from their perception of the “slavepower” as an external threat to their cherished order, rather than an intrinsic part of it. Far from inhibiting the Republicans, this illusion united their hopes and fears into a resolute sense of purpose. Only gradually, in responding to one emergency after another, did Republicans begin to accept that the moral and practical imperatives of the war entailed a fundamental departure from the constitutional system they were trying to preserve, a departure that went beyond any particular issue to redefine the very meaning of free government.
Trumbull’s career offers a dramatic and fascinating example of how intellectually sophisticated leaders internalized the contradictory imperatives of the Civil War – transforming the Union in order to save it. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the war and Reconstruction, Trumbull authored more significant legislation in that era than any other single figure, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 13th Amendment. And yet it is impossible to classify him according the traditional labels of “conservative”, “moderate” or “radical.” His hostility toward the slave-power was absolute, but so too was his reverence for the Constitutional order inherited from the founders. Arbitrary power was the shape-shifting enemy Trumbull always imagined himself to be fighting in one form or another. This essential consistency marked his course throughout his long career, not only as a leading Republican Senator in the Civil War, but as an anti-bank radical in the 1830’s and as a fiery populist in the 1890s. In tracing the intellectual ligaments of Trumbull’s dramatic career, I hope to offer a fresh perspective on the immense process by which an entirely new conception of the American Republic emerged from the failure of the old.