!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News
Profile: Abraham Lincoln
Positions that Abraham Lincoln has held:
- President of the United States
February 15, 1848
“Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure.… The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”
Abraham Lincoln was a participant or observer in the following events:
In a letter to his law partner, William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln disagrees with Herndon’s argument for preemptive war. “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure.… The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.” [Lincoln, 2/15/1848]
President Abraham Lincoln, responding to a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, does not wait for Congress to begin its next session to make his response. Instead, Lincoln, wielding powers that the Constitution does not grant him and without a formal declaration of war, drastically enlarges the Union’s army and navy, blockades Southern ports, spends money not appropriated by Congress, and arrests Northern citizens suspected of being Confederate sympathizers. All of these steps exceed his authority under the Constitution and under federal law. Lincoln addresses Congress as soon as it reconvenes, admitting that he has exceeded his authority (see 1787 and 1793), and refusing to argue that his actions are lawful based on any “prerogative of power” inherent to the presidency. Instead, he explains that he felt he had to respond immediately to the sudden crisis, and asks Congress to retroactively authorize his emergency actions. He says, “These measures, whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity, trusting then, as now, that Congress would readily ratify them.” Congress gives Lincoln the retroactive authorization he seeks. [Savage, 2007, pp. 16-17]
President Abraham Lincoln warns that powerful corporations threaten to exert undue influence on American elections and upon society in general. In a letter, he warns of “a crisis approaching,” writing: “As a result of the [Civil W]ar, corporations have become enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow. The money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its rule by preying upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is concentrated in few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” [Connecticut Network, 2006 ]
In the case of Ex parte Milligan, the Supreme Court strikes down a military tribunal used by former President Lincoln to prosecute Northern civilians, ruling that the Constitution limits a president’s power even during times of emergency. “The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people,” the Court writes, “equally in war and peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism.” The defendants, the Court rules, must be tried in civilian courts. [Coleman, 2005 ; PBS, 12/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 17]
Disbarred lawyer and convicted Watergate figure Charles Colson (see June 1974), now the head of the Christian Prison Fellowship ministry, writes that “the Constitution does not give the Supreme Court final say on constitutional questions.” Colson, a traditional social conservative, makes this startling claim in an op-ed about the recent Boerne v. Flores decision of the Court, in which the Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as an unconstitutional encroachment on the fundamental concept of the separation of church and state. Colson writes that the decision has “precipitat[ed] what may be the greatest constitutional crisis of our age.” Colson, a supporter of the RFRA, says the striking down of the act makes “religious liberties… once again vulnerable.” The overarching question Colson raises is whether the Supreme Court is the final judicial arbiter of the Constitution. Colson gives a blunt answer: “Contrary to what most Americans think, the Constitution does not give the Supreme Court final say on constitutional questions. And the Founders resisted the idea.” Colson cites the landmark 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, in which the Court, he says, took up the power of judicial review, then gives three examples of presidents defying Court orders. However, fellow convicted Watergate figure John Dean, a former White House counsel, refutes Colson’s arguments. In 2006, Dean will write that “Colson, like [televangelist Pat] Robertson and others on the religious right, is seeking, in effect, to nullify Supreme Court decisions of which he does not approve.” Dean will note that although Colson has long since lost his license to practice law, he is considered a scholar of some importance by his conservative contemporaries, and therefore has some influence.
'Marbury' and Judicial Review - Dean notes that Colson’s interpretation of the bedrock Marbury case is wrong. Judicial review by federal courts of Congressional legislation was a long-established principle by the time the Court issued its ruling. Even before the Constitutional Conventions, state courts had routinely overturned state legislative acts. The assumption of most during the debates over the contents of the Constitution was that federal courts, and most specifically the Supreme Court, would have similar power over federal legislation.
Thomas Jefferson and the Alien Imposition Act - Colson writes that “Thomas Jefferson refused to execute the Alien Imposition Act.” Colson is wrong: there was never such an act. Dean writes, “If Colson is referring to the infamous Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, it had nothing to do with a court order, and the example is therefore very misleading.” Jefferson’s predecessor, John Adams, enforced the law, which Jefferson considered unconstitutional. Jefferson pardoned those convicted of sedition under the statute when he gained the presidency. He never “refused to execute” it because it expired the day before he was inaugurated, March 4, 1801.
Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States - Colson writes that Andrew Jackson “spurned a Court order in a banking case.” Again, as Dean notes, the citation is misleading. Dean believes Colson is referring to Jackson’s 1832 veto of a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States. The Court had not issued an opinion on the rechartering of a federal bank, so Jackson did not defy a Court order.
Abraham Lincoln and the 'Dred Scott' Decision - Colson concludes his historical argument by saying that Abraham Lincoln “rejected the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln even asked Congress to overrule the Court—which it did, passing a law that reversed Dred Scott (1862).” Dean calls Colson’s argument “a stunning summation, not to mention distortion, of history.” The infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision found that slaves were neither citizens nor persons under the Constitution, that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and that the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal” applied only to white men. Lincoln argued passionately against the decision during his 1858 debates with his Senate opponent, Stephen Douglas, and swore that he would seek to reverse the decision. But, as Dean will note, “Seeking reversal is not defiance of the law.” Lincoln did defy the Court in 1861 by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and explained his unprecedented action to Congress by arguing that he did so to save the Union from dissolution. Dred Scott was overturned, not by Congressional legislation, but by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights.
The Danger Inherent in Colson's Arguments - Dean will note: “Colson’s baseless arguments are unfortunately typical of those that authoritarian conservatives insist on making, using facts that are irrelevant or misleading, if not demonstrably wrong. The self-righteousness of authoritarians [such as] Colson and Pat Robertson… has become so pronounced that at times it seems as if they believe themselves actually to be speaking ex cathedra [a sardonic reference to the infallibility of the Pope]. Their contention that the president of the United States is not bound by rulings of the Supreme Court, or, for that matter, by the laws of Congress, when these rulings or laws relate to the functions of the presidency, has gained increasing currency with authoritarian conservatives, both leaders and followers.” Such acceptance “is truly frightening in its implications.” [Christianity Today, 10/6/1997; Dean, 2006, pp. 111-115; Catholic Encyclopedia, 2008]
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discusses the parameters of the Bush administration’s push towards a “unified executive” and “imperial presidency” in the Washington Post by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s concerns over pre-emptive war. In 1848, Lincoln denounced the proposition “that if it shall become necessary to repel invasion, the President may, without violation of the Constitution, cross the line, and invade the territory of another country; and that whether such necessity exists in given case, the President is to be the sole judge.” Lincoln continued, “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure…. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of the British invading us’ but he will say to you ‘be silent; I see it, if you don’t.’ The Founding Fathers resolved to so frame the Constitution that not one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 181]
Jonathan Alter. [Source: Publicity photo via Greater Talent Network]Reporter and political pundit Jonathan Alter writes that President Bush’s attempt to kill the New York Times domestic wiretapping story (see December 15, 2005 and December 6, 2005), which the Times delayed for over a year at the White House’s request, is not an attempt to protect national security, as Bush will say in his response to the article (see December 17, 2005), but “because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker.” Alter continues, “He insists he had ‘legal authority derived from the Constitution and Congressional resolution authorizing force.’ But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law. And the post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing ‘all necessary force’ in fighting terrorism was made in clear reference to military intervention. It did not scrap the Constitution and allow the president to do whatever he pleased in any area in the name of fighting terrorism.” Alter is puzzled that Bush felt the need for the program when the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978) “allows the government to eavesdrop on its own, then retroactively justify it to the court, essentially obtaining a warrant after the fact.” Alter says that only four of “tens of thousands” of FISA requests have ever been rejected, and, “There was no indication the existing system was slow—as the president seemed to claim in his press conference—or in any way required extra-constitutional action.” He concludes: “[Bush] knew publication would cause him great embarrassment and trouble for the rest of his presidency. It was for that reason—and less out of genuine concern about national security—that George W. Bush tried so hard to kill the New York Times story. …We’re seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator, or in his own mind, no doubt, like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.” [Newsweek, 12/21/2005]
Author and historian Sean Wilentz argues that George W. Bush is perhaps the worst president in US history. [Princeton University, 4/21/2006; Rolling Stone, 11/21/2007] While Wilentz addresses several topics, he is particularly concerned with the Bush record on civil liberties in what Bush repeatedly calls “a time of war.” Wilentz writes: “No previous president appears to have squandered the public’s trust more than Bush has.… No other president—Lincoln in the Civil War, FDR in World War II, John F. Kennedy at critical moments of the Cold War—faced with such a monumental set of military and political circumstances failed to embrace the opposing political party to help wage a truly national struggle. But Bush shut out and even demonized the Democrats.… History may ultimately hold Bush in the greatest contempt for expanding the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the US Constitution.…[T]he Bush administration—in seeking to restore what [Vice President] Cheney, a Nixon administration veteran, has called ‘the legitimate authority of the presidency’—threatens to overturn the Framers’ healthy tension in favor of presidential absolutism. Armed with legal findings by his attorney general (and personal lawyer) Alberto Gonzales, the Bush White House has declared that the president’s powers as commander in chief in wartime are limitless. No previous wartime president has come close to making so grandiose a claim.” [Rolling Stone, 11/21/2007]
Jack Goldsmith’s ‘The Terror Presidency.’ [Source: Barnes and Noble.com]Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from October 2003 through June 2004, is publishing a new book, The Terror Presidency, in which he details many of the controversies in which he found himself mired during his brief and stormy tenure. Goldsmith was viewed, along with his friend and fellow law professor John Yoo, as two of the department’s newest and brightest conservative stars; the two were called the “New Sovereigntists” by the prestigious political journal Foreign Affairs. But instead of adding his voice to others in the Bush administration who supported the expanding powers of the presidency at the cost of civil liberties, Goldsmith found himself at odds with Yoo, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and other White House and Justice Department officials. The OLC advises the president on the limits of executive power (and finds legal justifications for its actions as well), and Goldsmith became embattled in disputes with the White House over the Bush administration’s systematic attempts to push the boundaries of executive power almost from the onset of his term as OLC chief, especially in light of the administration’s responses to 9/11 and the threat of Islamist terrorism (see October 6, 2003). Goldsmith disagreed with the White House over issues surrounding the use of torture against terrorist suspects (see December 2003-June 2004), the NSA’s secret domestic wiretapping program (see June 17, 2004), the extra-constitutional detention and trial of enemy combatants (see January-June 2004), and other issues.
'Behind-the-Scenes Revolt' - After nine contentious months leading a small group of administration lawyers in what New York Times Magazine reporter Jeffrey Rosen calls a “behind-the-scenes revolt against what [Goldsmith] considered the constitutional excesses of the legal policies embraced by his White House superiors in the war on terror,” Goldsmith resigned. He says of his mindset at the end of his term, “I was disgusted with the whole process and fed up and exhausted.” Goldsmith chose to remain quiet about his resignation, and as a result, his silence was widely misinterpreted by media, legal, and administration observers. Some even felt that Goldsmith should be investigated for his supposed role in drafting the torture memos he had actually opposed. “It was a nightmare,” Goldsmith recalls. “I didn’t say anything to defend myself, except that I didn’t do the things I was accused of.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Not a Whistleblower - Goldsmith, who now teaches law at Harvard, does not regard himself as a whistleblower. “This book is not about whistle blowing,” he says. “It’s about trying to explain to the public the enormous pressures and tensions inside the executive branch to keep Americans safe and about how that pressure bumps into the wall, and about the difficulties that everyone in the administration has and the pressure to do everything possible to keep Americans safe, and the intense pressure to comply with the law. And it’s an attempt to give a fair-minded and deeply sympathetic description of that tension, and I actually think there’s a structural problem in the presidency because of this, and I’m trying to explain the pressure the administration is under and why it did the things it did, and why it did things correctly in some circumstances and why it made mistakes.” He says he has learned some difficult lessons from his tenure in Washington: “I came away from my time in government thinking, as many people do, that there’s too much secrecy. Both too much secrecy inside the executive branch and between the executive branch and Congress. There’s obviously a trade-off and it’s hard to know when to draw the line. If issues and debates are too tightly drawn, and there’s too much secrecy, then two pathologies occur and we saw them occur in this administration. One is you don’t have the wide-range debate needed to help you avoid errors. Two is, it’s pretty well known that excessive secrecy leaves other people in the government to question what is going on when they get wind of it, and to leak it.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
Bush, Administration Officials Going Too Far in Placing Politics Above Law - Goldsmith believes that Bush and his officials are their own worst enemies in their attempts to expand presidential power. Goldsmith, like his heroes Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, regards the law as secondary to political leadership. Bush’s indifference and even contempt for the political process has weakened his abilities as a wartime leader, in direct contrast to Lincoln and Roosevelt. “I don’t know if President Bush understood how extreme some of the arguments were about executive power that some people in his administration were making,” Goldsmith says. Since Bush is not a lawyer, “[i]t’s hard to know how he would know.” Bush’s refusal to work with Congress is in direct contradiction to Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s approaches, and that refusal has damaged his administration’s ability to combat terrorism and achieve its agenda. Goldsmith writes that Bush has willfully ignored the axiom that the strongest presidential power is the power to persuade. “The Bush administration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action and legalistic defense,” Goldsmith writes. “This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise.” While Goldsmith agrees with the administration that the terrorist threat is extremely serious, and that the US must counter it aggressively, he quotes his conservative Harvard colleague Charles Fried that Bush “badly overplayed a winning hand.” Bush “could have achieved all that he wanted to achieve, and put it on a firmer foundation, if he had been willing to reach out to other institutions of government.” Instead, he says, Bush weakened the presidency he was so determined to strengthen. “I don’t think any president in the near future can have the same attitude toward executive power, because the other institutions of government won’t allow it. The Bush administration has borrowed its power against future presidents.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Adding to Presidential Power - He adds, “Basically, the administration has the conception of executive power that suggests they clearly have a public agenda item of wanting to leave the presidency more powerful than they found it. Vice President Cheney was in the Ford White House at the dawn of the resurgent Congress after Watergate and Vietnam and he believed then that the 1970s restrictions put on the executive branch by Congress related to war and intelligence harm the presidency. So one of their agenda items before 9/11 was to keep the power of presidency and expand the power of the presidency to put it back to its rightful place.… They’ve certainly lost a lot of trust of Congress. And the Supreme Court really, I think, cut back on certain presidential prerogatives.… Future presidencies will face a culture of distrust and worry, I believe, because of the actions taken by the Bush administration. A lot of it was unnecessary.… So when you have those pressures [to battle terrorism and keep the nation safe] and then you run into laws that don’t allow you to do what you need to do, I think the prescription is that going it alone unilaterally with executive power is not as good as getting the other institutions on board through consensus and consultation.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
Entity Tags: Charles Fried, Bush administration (43), Abraham Lincoln, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jeffrey Rosen, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, John C. Yoo, Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Fox News graphic illustrating the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Depicted on the left is Frederick Douglass, the civil rights champion who did not debate Abraham Lincoln. [Source: Huffington Post]Fox News reports that presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has challenged fellow candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to a “Lincoln-Douglas style” debate. Clinton is referencing the classic two-person debates between Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas of 1858. However, Fox News, on its Fox and Friends morning broadcast, reports on Clinton’s challenge. It illustrates its report with a picture of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the former slave who is considered the “father” of the American civil rights movement, but who never ran for the Senate. Two MSNBC news and opinion shows—Verdict with Dan Abrams and Countdown with Keith Olbermann—later report Fox News’s choice of illustrations. Abrams will observe that the Fox News hosts “don’t even seem to know that the wrong Douglas is up” during their broadcast. Apparently Fox News never acknowledges or corrects the error. [Crooks and Liars, 4/29/2008; Huffington Post, 5/7/2008]
President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office as administered by Chief Justice John Roberts. His wife Michelle holds the Bible used to administer the oath, which will be redone the second day because of a minor error in Roberts’s delivery. [Source: Access Hollywood]Barack Obama (D-IL) is officially inaugurated as president of the United States. He is the 44th US president. He was elected on November 4, 2008 (see November 4, 2008), and then went through a short transition period. [Washington Times, 1/20/2009] Obama is forced to retake the oath of office after Chief Justice John Roberts errs in delivering it during the inaugural ceremonies. Roberts administers the “second” oath in the White House’s map room; Roberts asks Obama if he is ready and Obama says, “I am, and we’re going to do it very slowly.” Roberts initially said the word “faithfully” out of order, prompting some conservative bloggers and reporters to claim that Obama’s presidency is illegitimate. White House counsel Greg Craig says: “We believe that the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. But the oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time.” The oath properly reads, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” [CNN, 1/21/2009] Obama takes the first oath on a Bible that belonged to former President Abraham Lincoln, on loan from the Library of Congress. The second oath is taken without a Bible, which is allowed under the Constitution but will lead to further criticism from Obama opponents. [St. Petersburg Times, 1/22/2009]
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.