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This Article recovers the forgotten ideas about public constitutionalism in seventy published addresses given at cemetery dedications from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story’s address at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831, to the addresses by Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in November 1863. It reveals an important, but forgotten, set of ideas that provided a precedent for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Those addresses, including Lincoln’s, reveal the centrality of constitutional values—as opposed to constitutional text—in framing Americans’ interpretation of the Constitution. Pre-Civil War Americans had a vibrant public discussion of constitutional principles, in addition to constitutional text. These were ideas propagated on such diverse occasions as July Fourth celebrations, arguments in the Supreme Court, dedication of public monuments, lyceum addresses, and college literary society lectures.

For Americans, especially those of the Whig Party, the Constitution was a key component of culture and a key unifier of the nation. Cemetery dedications are one place where Whigs turned to promote their constitutional values. The cemetery supported constitutional values of Union, respect for property, and obedience to the rule of law. Rural cemeteries promoted Whig constitutional ideals about order, patriotism, and Union. Those values were at the center of the debate over the response to secession and they were put into practice by soldiers along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg in 1863. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg reflects the appeals to sentiment and Constitution that were so frequently invoked in the thirty years before the War. This hidden history reveals how those ideas mobilized support for Union and, thus, how public constitutional thought affected the actions of voters, jurists, and politicians.