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Abraham Lincoln FAQ: Part Two

All week on the OUPblog we will be celebrating the Lincoln Bicentennial.  Be sure to read Jennifer Weber’s post on how Lincoln almost failed, the excerpt from James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln, and come back tomorrow for Craig L. Symonds post. In the original piece below Allen Guelzo, author of Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction, answers some FAQs about Lincoln.  Check back tomorrow for part three of this series.  You can read part one here

OUPblog: Lincoln had the highest regard for the U.S. Constitution, yet he assumed extraordinary powers during the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. When we look at this story for lessons about the conduct of a government today, what should we find?

Allen Guelzo: When we say that Lincoln exercised “extraordinary powers,” it sounds as though we were accusing him of making himself a dictator. But the Constitution itself gives the President some extraordinary powers when it designates the President as Commander-in-Chief in time of war or rebellion – and Lincoln was certainly willing to use those “war powers” during the Civil War. But looked at in retrospect, Lincoln used them very cautiously. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as a “war powers” proclamation, with all kinds of restraints and caveats to keep it strictly within the legal bounds of military necessity. The Constitution was, for Lincoln, the frame mounted around the “apples of gold” in the Declaration of Independence, and you could not damage one without damaging the other.

OUPblog: During the Civil War, Lincoln declared martial law and suspended habeas corpus. He ordered the arrest of draft resisters and opponents of the draft, newspaper editors, judges, and other prominent opponents. He argued that it was an issue of self-preservation of the nation, as described in Article II, section one of the Constitution. What about opponents of the President’s policies?

Guelzo: Lincoln was a far better lawyer than I am, and he could answer that question with much more attention to constitutional law. But it is significant that the same issues are once again before us – not only that, but the same accusations of violations of rights, and the same response that the nature of the threat justifies extraordinary actions in national self-defense. One thing to bear in mind is that Lincoln has, on the whole, been judged fairly mildly, first, because the threat to the survival if the United States in 1861-65 has been seen as very real, and second, because, at the end of the day, the steps Lincoln took were not out of balance with the nature of the threat. (Those steps, by the way, included suppressing draft riots, executing a slave trader, and even exiling a political dissident). If anything, Lincoln once said, his administration would probably be remembered for treading too lightly on wartime civil liberties cases.

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