Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, has long been venerated as a hero of civil rights and protector of the union. History has remembered him as a President who acted courageously during the Civil War and protected the United States against all the odds. Despite his ability to win the Civil War and pass a historic amendment to the Constitution, his decision-making throughout the Civil War gives us an insight into his methods to accumulate power and resources and show us the tremendous impact it had on future presidents. Abraham Lincoln ultimately changed the role of the executive office and led the nation during a tumultuous time ending in the deaths of over 600,000 Americans on both sides.
The Civil War had a sudden impact on the decision-making style of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike other presidents before him, Lincoln did the unexpected and went against all odds, for the betterment of the United States. In one of his books, Gabor S. Boritt states that, while the president, in Lincolns time and the world since, could not resolve the issue of who and to what point was entitled to self-determination, Abraham Lincoln, during the American Civil War, fearlessly escaped the dilemma by doing what he referred to as, embracing the cause of the slave. By so doing, he found the ultimate justification of the war (Boritt). This being the case, in April 1861 an attack on Fort Sumter triggered the Civil War between the Union and Confederate Army. Immediately following this attack, Lincoln called for a militia of 75,000 troops and ordered an immediate naval blockade of the South. His act of sending a large number of troops was considered an act of war, which only Congress was authorized to do, but through the interpretation of his war powers, he was able to summon these troops and also order a blockade. In that same month, Lincoln ordered a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, a venerated right in the Constitution, also a power only given to Congress as stated in the Articles of the Constitution. He was opposed to doing this by Congressmen in that time stating whether he had the right or authority to do so. This suspension changed the game and now opened the doors for his decision-making to take on a different position of greater power, maybe powers not given through the Constitution. For this reason, many would argue that Lincoln acted in defense of protecting the nation as he stated in a speech to Congress on July 4, saying that their opposition to his actions was so extreme that, "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated."-Lincoln, Abraham (Lincoln). Special Session Message Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Washington D.C. 4 July 1861. Speech. His opposition from Congressman Taney was in response to his decision to suspend habeas corpus, stating that the President had overstepped his bounds and he had no right to do so. His actions during the war were made to silence any opposition no matter the cost and the suspension of habeas corpus, which is a law that predates the Constitution and goes back to English common law saying that no one can be detained if there are no charges made for a crime (Adams).
Despite the opposition to his suspension of habeas corpus Congress nevertheless authorized the President to suspend the writ two years later in 1863. Lincolns argument for this was that he believed that in times of rebellion he was entitled to certain war powers that allowed him to stretch the limits of executive power. This argument can be seen as a violation of Constitutional law in that the Constitution states that Congress has the authority to sanction the suspensions and call for military aid in times of rebellion or the invasion of the public. - U.S. Constitution. Art. I /Section 9. Clause 2.
Regardless of his attempts at ending the war by any means necessary many would argue that his decisions were rational in proportion to the unique situation in which he had. No other President had dealt with a rebellion of that magnitude and a country in Civil War. He masterfully navigated the war through hardships and enacted policies favoring the war on his side and the nation as a whole. The enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves from slave states, and he did so from a legal standpoint. His enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation is particularly evidenced by Russell Shorto, in his book Abraham Lincoln and the end of Slavery. According to Shorto, Lincoln became a popular name among the freed slaves, to the extent that, the news of his assassination were received as a great disappointment by the newly freed slaves, who needed the presidents aid so that they could take steps towards equality and also becoming true American citizens (Shorto). His shrewdness in achieving a win for the Union both morally and logistically by gaining for soldiers was by design. Two generals had tried to emancipate within their own states, but he had denied them due to his issue on whether he had the Constitutional power to do so and he did not want to lose some states that were *border states.
Lincolns actions during the war can be justified, but the effects that his actions had for the executive branch were enormous. After the Civil War, the government became centralized, more than ever before extending the powers of future presidents. Professor of Law at Yale Law School, John Fabian Witt, explores the laws of warfare and in his book Lincolns Code he argues that Lincoln codified warfare in America with his use of a moral structure on his reasons for war. Lincolns use of war powers triggered a change in modern warfare and as Witt discusses in his book, his top legal advisor, Francis Lieber who developed the articles of war (General Orders No. 100) was instrumental in devising a new standard in war conduct. Lieber favored a hard war policy and became the standard on which we base our treatment of prisoners or war, civilians, and procedures for surrendering, etc.
Witt also speaks about how the struggle between law and warfare characterized the Civil War more than any other period. Although each generation throughout American History has dealt with its own set of conflicts with law and warfare Lincolns decisions and use of war powers became the stepping stone on which future Presidents would rely. Fast forward to the First World War and the United States is on the cusp of joining the war efforts in Europe, under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson the Committee on Public Information a propaganda institution created for espionage, operated outside of the Constitution and ultimately created the Sedition Acts of 1917. This covered a multitude of illegal offenses to free speech and ultimately targeted individuals who spoke negative about the government or the Constitution, these people were jailed without reason and sent to prison. President Wilsons inability to act during this time of persecution for targeted groups and immigrants drew this country into a world war and ultimately increased executive power in wartime ever more. A few years later we have President Roosevelt who can be seen as the epitome of excessive power of the executive, violated basic civil rights of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. His actions were essentially a repeat of a suspension of habeas corpus only this time for a targeted group of people, where they were not given a trial nor evidence linking them to any wrongdoing was produced for their imprisonment. This action is primarily seen as one of the biggest failures in American politics and a sad moment in our history was due to the egregious incursion on fundamental civil liberties something that can be traced back to President Lincoln (Dr. Know).
Although President Lincolns situation varied from Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson, his overt encroachment of Congress opened a can of worms for the executive branch regarding limits on power. My implication is that President Lincoln acted in a rational way and his actions can be justified because the tradeoff he faced was either preserving or losing the nation. His actions can be seen as reasonable in a situation of Civil War, and he did ultimately stop the use of war powers as did his predecessor Andrew Jackson. His actions can be justified but can the same be said for his predecessors? What are the limits of executive power? If we take these questions and apply them to modern day situations, like the Patriot Act in its use of the term enemy combatants, which are people who cannot be treated as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions. Although President Lincolns intentions were good and clear, his circumvention of Congress in particular situations led to an imbalance of power between Congress and the executive branch.
Abraham Lincoln. Directed by D W. Griffith, Perf. Walter Huston, Una Merkel, William L. Thorne. 1930. 1930.
Adams, Michelle. Abraham Lincoln: Suspension of Habeas Corpus and Supreme Court Cases Ex Parte Merryman and Ex Parte Milligan. Florida State U, 2009.
Boritt, G S, and Robert V. Bruce. Lincoln, the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures. Oxford UP, 1992.
Dr. Know. "A President Suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus - by Dr Know." Newsvine, 12 Mar. 2008, drknow.newsvine.com/_news/2008/03/12/1361886-a-president-suspends-the-writ-of-habeas-corpus. Accessed 11 May 2017.
Shorto, Russell. Abraham Lincoln and the End of Slavery. Millbrook P, 1991.
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