Abraham Lincoln and Presidential War Powers

A class I took sophomore year on Lincoln’s statesmanship sparked my interest in how Abraham Lincoln handled the Civil War. Oddly, he is one of the most popular and revered presidents in America history, yet he is also the closest thing we have had to extra constitutional governance. Some more radical individuals go so far as to call him a tyrant.

Given America’s profound respect for the Constitution I wondered how Lincoln’s expansive view of presidential war power could stand side by side with our lasting reverence for the man. I wondered how Lincoln’s own demonstrated respect for the Constitution could fit with his actions as commander in chief.

My initial research leads me to believe that we hold Lincoln so highly because his actions were consistent with the system of government that the founders established in 1787. Yes, Lincoln did do many things whose constitutionality can be debated – he blockaded Southern ports, he began to raise and supply an army before Congress was even in session, he suspended habeas corpus, and he freed the slaves by presidential proclamation! But based on his unique oath of office, the take care clause, the vesting clause of Article II, and his constitutional powers as commander in chief all of these actions can be viewed not as extra-constitutional or prerogative powers, but as legitimate constitutional actions. Lincoln was not acting outside of the Constitution. Rather he was embracing it and an office that the founders designed to be capable of both strength and weakness depending on the needs of the nation. In doing so he saved the Union and the Constitution, not by setting them aside but by embracing a Hamiltonian view of the presidency.

I think that my research will lead me to agree with Henry Ward Beecher when he told Lincoln that he had ended the rebellion “without sacrificing republican government even in its forms.”

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2 Responses to Abraham Lincoln and Presidential War Powers

  1. johnadearborn says:

    Your project sounds very interesting! Are you just looking at this from a constitutional perspective? Do you plan at all to compare Lincoln’s actions in the Civil War to other war presidents, such as FDR or George W. Bush? Do you think Lincoln’s actions make him fit the “Imperial Presidency” idea of Arthur Schlesinger?

  2. Great topic proposal! I too have often wondered at the apparent discrepancy between Lincoln’s questionably-Constitutional actions and the reverence in which he’s held by most Americans. I’m sure you’ve already read it, given your topic, but I enjoyed Thomas DiLorenzo’s “The Real Lincoln,” which offers a rather controversial but valuable look into some of these issues.

    Good luck with your research; I’ll look forward to meeting you in DC in November.

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