Abraham Lincoln and Power
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life
(Johns Hopkins Press, 2008)
Abraham Lincoln was a pragmatist in the use of power. Winston Churchill wrote that Lincoln was “anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course, he may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be show to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction; yet his object will throughout have remained the same…we cannot call this inconsistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” 1
Mr. Lincoln was also an idealist who believed that power must be exercised with principle. In July 1858, Mr. Lincoln wrote out some notes for a campaign speech. His ideas were inspired by the example of English politician William Wilberforce, who spent three decades fighting to end the English slave trade.: “I have never professed an indifference to the honors of official station; and were I to do so now, I should only make myself ridiculous. Yet I have never failed – do not now fail – to remember that in the republican cause there is a higher aim than that of mere office – I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the Slave-trade by Great Brittain [sic], was agitated a hundred years before it was a final success; that the measure had it’s open fire-eating opponents; it’s stealthy “don’t care” opponents; it’s dollars and cents opponents; it’s inferior race opponents; it’s negro equality opponents; and it’s religion and good order opponents; that all these opponents got offices, and their adversaries got none – But I have also remembered that though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell – School-boys know that [William] Wilbe[r]force, and Granville Sharpe, helped that cause forward; but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it? Remembering these things I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life. But I can not doubt either that it will come in due time. Even in this view, I am proud, in my passing speck of time, to contribute an humble mite to that glorious consummation, which my own poor eyes may not last to see -” 2 Lincoln would at least glimpse the consummation of his efforts in the months after passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, for whose approval in January 1865 he strenuously lobbied.
As a young man, Mr. Lincoln had been anxious to make his mark on the world. He admitted as much when he made his first run for office. But ambition must always be tempered by law and respect for community opinion. In 1838, he gave the first major, reported speech of his career before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield. The focus of the “Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” was on the role of law and reason in public affairs and the dangers posed by unchecked ambition, emotion and violence:
“I know the American People are much attached to their Government;- I know they would suffer much for its sake; – I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.”
“Here then, is one point at which danger may be expected.”
“The question recurs “how shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; – let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the [charter] of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap – let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; – let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; – let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars…”
“When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but till then, let them if not too intolerable, be borne with.” 3
As this Lyceum speech indicated, Mr. Lincoln was very cognizant of the abuses of power – either by a mob or a dictator. Political scientist Waller R. Newell wrote: “While in his youthful Lyceum speech he may have flirted, at least in his imagination, with the idea of the great man who enslaves rather than liberates, the argument he used to rout his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, in the 1858 Senate race was that to tolerate the enslavement of anyone amounts to inviting the enslavement of everyone. And it was in taking this stand that he found his path toward a principled greatness.” 4 Lincoln was ambitious, but his ambition was tempered by principle. For Lincoln, power was inseparable from principle. Lincoln understood that a leader needed to understand not only his actions but the consequences of his actions and the subsequent actions that would be necessary as a result. Historian Vernon Burton wrote: “Just like war, war’s aftermath involved matters of moral integrity and sheer power. Lincoln began considering the issue of Reconstruction almost as soon as war broke out, and in 1864 he had written to a Quaker constituent: ‘Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion.’” 5
Lincoln was a Whig and therefore had a limited view of presidential powers – but he nevertheless admired President Andrew Jackson’s strong leadership. Historian Gabor Boritt wrote that Lincoln’s “marriage to the Whig view of the presidency became…one of conviction, which he kept on nurturing through the antebellum years. The large fruits this bore became evident after 1861. Even when Lincoln became the strongest executive since Jackson, indeed perhaps in all of American history, in his relationship with Congress and his Cabinet he remained exceedingly reserved.” 6 His reserve was the product of prudent practice and reverence for the Constitution.
“Mr. Lincoln was no saint, nor did I ever hear that he assumed to be. He was an earnest, loyal man, alike so to his country and his principles; but if the necessity arose, he wielded the weapons of political warfare with as little hesitation and with far more skill than did his political foes,” wrote General John Pope in his memoirs. “He had been an old Whig and was therefore saturated with the idea of settling all questions by compromise, but it was also in his nature to be kind and conciliatory and he always inclined to peaceful rather than violent measures and tried to do the impossible thing in public life – make friends of his political enemies, even if it involved neglecting his own friends.” 7 When Lincoln sacked General Pope after his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, the president made sure to find an appropriate command for him in Minnesota even if Pope was ungrateful for the president’s solicitude. “Lincoln knew how to adapt the rule of ‘nothing personal,’” wrote historian Catherine Clinton. 8 He also knew how to use people to advance his agenda.
The coalition politics of the late 1850s had prepared Lincoln for the problems of the Presidency. In his 1858 campaign against Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln needed to fuse old-line Whigs with erstwhile Know-Nothings, anti-slavery Democrats, and more radical Republicans. Lincoln needed to meld pro-tariff and anti-tariff forces, nativists and anti-nativists around the antislavery banner. He sought to eliminate any political distractions that might inhibit the movement’s growth. Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “To achieve dominance, the party needed to recruit at least some of those whom Lincoln called ‘the nice exclusive sort’ of Whigs. As one metaphor-mixing activist explained, unless the party managed to ‘secure that conservative part of the old Whig party which the Democrats have been fishing after for the last three years we may as well hang up de fiddle and de bow.’” 9 The allegiance of these whigs was particularly important in Central Illinois, where Lincoln practice law and politics.
In the buildup to the Civil War during the winter of 1860-1861, Lincoln was largely quiet – preserving the powers that his election gave him without needlessly inflaming the South. There were a constellation of issues that Lincoln had to consider. Lincoln had to appeal to a wide range of perspectives. The questions was not just Union or secession. The question was what concessions might be granted to forestall secession and whether force would be used to prevent. He needed to nurture Southern unionists while preserving the unity of his northern Republican majority. He could not be tempted by the siren call of compromise if that compromise undermined the reasons Americans had elected him president. Lincoln told one visitor “that he would rather be hung by the neck till he was dead on the steps of the Capitol before he would buy or beg a peaceful inauguration [sic].” His law partner observed: Lincoln is as firm as the base of the Rocky Mountains.” 10 That firm strategy created conflicts with some Republicans, such as New York Senator William H. Seward, who sought accommodation with the South.
Lincoln was understandably tentative in the use of his presidential powers when he first took office in March 1861. He attempted to formulate policy amid a welter of conflicting advice, information, and pressures. The nation’s new president confronted an unprecedented crisis with an untested cabinet and a shaky military apparatus. He was committed to maintain the Union but the path to do so was unclear – especially with the two southern forts still in Union hands – Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida. Newly-installed Secretary of State Seward was a persistent proponent of compromise and abandoning Fort Sumter. Commanding Union General Winfield Scott also advised abandoning the forts, but President Lincoln was determined to maintain them and let the Confederate army initiate hostilities. Historian James L. Abrahamson wrote: “Lincoln had anticipated that violent Southern resistance to supplying Sumter would unite the North. By reducing the fort even before that attempt could be made, [Jefferson] Davis made his government doubly the aggressor – at least in the minds of Northerners already outraged by secession, the seizure of so much federal property, and months of inaction in Washington. Even so, historian Kenneth Stampp rightly concluded that Lincoln had not set out to provoke war but rather to enforce the law and secure federal property.” 11
In the pre-inauguration period Lincoln needed to appear both conciliatory and firm. Historian Russell McClintock wrote: “Lincoln’s strategy of creating a strict hard-line image while actually considering minor concessions probably proved more effective than Seward’s encouragement of optimism and his open conciliationism.” 12 Lincoln carefully managed the run-up to the Civil War – attempting to appear both firm and conciliatory in order to mobilize northern support necessary to preserve the Union. He recognized that “the administration must not be perceived as the aggressor,” noted McClintock. McClintock noted: “Lincoln’s decision on Sumter was consistent with his stance throughout the crisis in that he leaned as far toward conciliation as he could without sacrificing federal authority.” 13 In leaning toward conciliation, Lincoln understood, he prepared the country for bolder action later – such as he would do in 1862 in the run-up to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Any leader needs constituencies. Lincoln’s based was the North, but he thought he had another one in southern unionists. He was disappointed to discover how few they were in number and how conditional was their unionism. Lincoln needed to devise a policy that was perceived as appropriately firm in the North and appropriately flexible in the border states. Too vigorous a defense of Fort Sumter would push border states into the arms of the Confederacy. Indeed, as it turned out, Lincoln’s response to the attack on Fort Sumter pushed Virginia into the Confederacy.
Lincoln believed that secession had challenged the fundamental premises of democracy. “For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.” 14 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “In the fourteen weeks following the bombardment of Sumter, Lincoln acted firmly to meet the emergency. The challenge was daunting, for as he himself put it, the war ‘began on very unequal terms between the parties. The insurgents had been preparing for it more than thirty years, while the government had taken no steps to resist them.’” 15 Lincoln needed to rally and unify northern public opinion. His opinions about the Constitution, secession and his own presidential powers were articulated in his special Message to Congress on July 4, 1864:
“Lest there be some uneasiness in the minds of candid men, as to what is to be the course of the government, towards the Southern States, after the rebellion shall have been suppressed, the Executive deems it proper to say, it will be his purpose then, as ever, to be guided by the Constitution, and the laws; and that he probably will have no different understanding of the powers, and duties of the Federal government, relatively to the rights of the States, and the people, under the Constitution, than that expressed in the inaugural address.”
“He desires to preserve the government, that it may be administered for all, as it was administered by the men who made it. Loyal citizens everywhere, have the right to claim this of their government; and the government has no right to withhold, or neglect it. It is not perceived that, in giving it, there is any coercion, any conquest, or any subjugation, in any just sense of those terms.”
“The Constitution provides, and all the States have accepted the provision, that ‘The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government.’ But, if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so, it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out, is an indispensable means, to the end, of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it, are also lawful and obligatory.”
“It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war-power, in defence of the government, forced upon him. He could but perform this duty, or surrender the existence of the government. No compromise, by public servants, could, in this case, be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent, that those who carry an election, can only save the government from immediate destruction, by giving up the main point, upon which the people gave the election. The people themselves, and not their servants, can safely reverse their own deliberate decisions. As a private citizen, the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he, in betrayal of so vast, and so sacred a trust, as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility, he has, so far, done what he has deemed his duty. You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views, and your action, may so accord with his, as to assure all faithful citizens, who have been disturbed in their rights, of a certain, and speedy restoration to them, under the Constitution, and the laws.” 16
After Lincoln read to historian John Lothrop Motley his proposed Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861, Motley observed that Lincoln was “a man of the most extraordinary conscientiousness. He seemed to have a window in his breast. There was something almost childlike in his absence of guile and affectation of any kind.” 17 The editor of Harper’s Weekly, George William Curtis wrote of Lincoln’s July 4 message: “This Government was founded upon the rights of man; and for the first time in long years the President recognizes that fact….At length there is a people’s President, in no mean sense; and the Government of the United States is restored to its original principles.” 18 Lincoln admitted to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull that “he did not know of any law to authorize some of the things he had done; but he thought there was a necessity for them, & that to save the constitution & the laws generally, it might be better to do some illegal acts, rather than suffer all to be overthrown.” 19
In preserving the Union, Lincoln relied on his obeisance to the law and the Constitution. Historian Mackubin T. Owens wrote that “For Lincoln, the Union and the Constitution that he sought to save were not ends in themselves but the means to something else. He saw the Constitution principally as a framework for sharing power within a republican government. This was the real thing he aimed to preserve because only republican government was capable of protecting the liberty of the people. He understood the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of such a government, and the Constitution as the means of implementing it.” 20 Wisconsin Senator Henry S. Foote, however, maintained that Lincoln “was a firm and inflexible supporter of the Constitution of the United States, and had no inclination to disturb any of its guarantees so long as that instrument should remain unaltered.” 21 The U.S. Constitution was Lincoln’s rule book. Historian William C. Harris wrote: “Lincoln identified himself as a ‘conservative’ because, as he explained, he favored a strong American commitment to the principles of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the laws, which included opposition to the expansion of slavery. He did not think that the Democrats, including Douglas, were true conservatives.” 22 There was a sharp division between Mr. Lincoln’s moral position on slavery and his constitutional one. In his First Inaugural, President Lincoln restated what he had said in 1858 and 1859: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” 23
The devotion to the law that had characterized Lincoln’s “Lyceum Speech” in 1838 carried over into his presidency. Lincoln scholar Lucas Morel contended: “Abraham Lincoln was a constitutionalist first and last, devoted to the rule of law as manifested in the slow but deliberate processes of laws and courts and with public opinion as the ultimate driver of political progress.” 24 Lincoln understood that an American leader was as limited by public opinion as he was by the Constitution. That would be particularly evident when as President Lincoln dealt with the issue of emancipation. 25 Morel wrote: “The idea of constitutional self-government under the beneficience of God stands as a running theme for Lincoln and a fitting summation of his political reason for being.” 26 Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: that as President, “Lincoln often distinguished what he did as an oath-bound president from what he might have done in his personal capacity. Doing so no doubt expressed his genuine sense of constitutional rectitude.” 27
Lincoln took seriously his promises and oaths under the Constitution. His actions were constrained by the Constitution. The presidential oath of office especially constrained him. William Lee Miller wrote: “At noon on March 4, 1861, the moral situation of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was abruptly transformed” from private citizen to president. “That afternoon, standing on the steps of the East Portico of the Capitol, before thirty thousand of his fellow citizens, he became an oath-bound head of state.” 28 Lincoln was no longer a private citizen. He was president of the United States – states that he felt duty-bound to keep united in the face of insurrection and secession.
In addition to the law, President Lincoln was constrained by public opinion – and the need to mobilize it behind the federal government. Lincoln could not afford to fire the first shot of the Civil War. Only if the Union was attacked – as it was at Fort Sumter – would the nation rally behind the Lincoln Administration against secession. Lincoln would be especially constrained by public opinion where slavery and emancipation were concerned. “Lincoln based his policy on the moral claim of the Declaration of Independence. Some thought he did not go far enough, others that he went too far; but the moral ground of the Declaration was both broad and narrow enough to accommodate many positions while remaining fixed itself,” wrote historian Garry Wills. “Lincoln had to persuade voters. He could not force them.” 29 As a consequence, Lincoln’s leadership on slavery has often been questioned, especially by those who underestimate the extent of northern racism or the limits on presidential power imposed by the constitution and public opinion.
People were an essential ingredient in Lincoln’s perception of power. Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan wrote: “Lincoln was serious about his bully pulpit. He was the nation’s propagandist (persuader)-in-chief. He molded public opinion and provided the guidance that people needed. He carefully watched to see that his speeches were reported correctly.” 30 Lincoln legal scholar Paul Finkelman argued that Lincoln took a number of steps during the spring and summer of 1862 deliberately to prepare northern public opinion for emancipation. Just as he had done in the period prior to Fort Sumter, Lincoln acted in a way to demonstrate that he had exhausted other alternatives. Thus, he advocated colonization and compensated emancipation as alternatives. Finkelman wrote of Lincoln’s reply to editor Horace Greeley’s “Prayer of Twenty Millions” in August: Lincoln “had now warned the nation that he would end slavery if it were necessary to preserve the Union. In fact he had been quietly and secretly moving toward this result all summer.” 31
“This is essentially a People’s contest,” Lincoln had written in his Special Message to Congress on July 4, 1861: “On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” 32 Historian David E. Long wrote: “Lincoln’s relentless faith in the survival of the American republic was the steel cable that held the nation together during its greatest ordeal. He was a fierce warrior for union and emancipation.” 33
But it was not enough to be fierce. The Civil War was a devilishly tricky time in American history. James Russell Lowell, the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly, wrote his magazine: “Never did a President enter upon office with less means at his command, outside his own strength of heart and steadiness of understanding, for inspiring confidence in the people, and so winning it for himself, than Mr. Lincoln.” 34 Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote: “No political leader in all human history began his office in the midst of more profound difficulties nor a situation in which his leadership depended upon such contrary imperatives.” 35 The secession of southern states triggered presidential powers that had previously been unused or uncontemplated. Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote that Lincoln “faced ‘a clear, flagrant, and gigantic case of Rebellion,’ as he would put it later. He dealt with an ‘insurrection,’ one of the two terms the Constitution names – the other being ‘invasion’ – in its only explicit recognition of emergency powers.” 36 sup>
Lincoln responded to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861, by issuing a proclamation which mobilized 75,000 troops to confront the rebellion. The president postponed calling Congress back into session to deal with the crisis until July 4. For nearly three months at the beginning of the war, Lincoln acted without congressional authorization or interference. Lincoln scholar Frank J. Williams noted that during this period, “Lincoln performed a whole series of important acts by sheer assumption of presidential power. First, he proclaimed not ‘civil war’ in those words, but the existence of ‘combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.’ He called forth the militia to ‘suppress said combinations,’ which he ordered ‘to disburse and retire peacefully’ to their homes. He enlarged the Army and Navy, appropriated money for the purchase of weapons, established the blockade of the southern coast, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus – all without authority from Congress.” 37 One reason that Lincoln did not call Congress back was that there were key congressional elections being held that spring that Lincoln did not want to disrupt.
The powers of the federal government were not fully developed at the beginning of the Civil War. Inevitably, Lincoln would break new executive ground with his limited White House staff of three assistants. Historian David M. Potter wrote that “in 1861, there were few ways in which the Federal government exercised a direct authority, few functions which brought it into direct contact with the people or the authorities of the states. It is probably true that all such functions fell under not more than four heads: Federal marshals and judges administered the Federal law, postal officials delivered the mails, customs officers collected duties at a limited number of Southern ports, and the army maintained forts and arsenals.” 38 Lincoln biographer James G. Randall wrote: “No president has carried the power of the presidential edict and executive order (independently of Congress) so far as he did.” 39
The Civil War was a test of the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Each branch sought to preserve and extend the boundaries of its powers. Historian Michael Burlingame contended: “Lincoln violated the explicit provision of the Constitution empowering Congress to raise armies. On July 1, 1861, Lincoln explained to Lyman Trumbull “that he did not know of any law to authorize some things which he had done; but he thought there was a necessity for them, & that to save the constitution & the laws generally, it might be better to do some illegal acts, rather than suffer all to be overthrown.” 40 Lincoln took over the Presidency at a time when presidential power was much in question. Flexibility was one of the President’s most important tools to save the Union. Mr. Lincoln told Maryland senators in October 1864: “I am struggling to maintain [the] government, not overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” 41 To do that Lincoln necessarily stretched the powers that had been wielded by his predecessors while asserting that events controlled his actions. It would be more correct to say that Lincoln used events to justify actions he had already anticipated.
President Lincoln had to manage three major transitions in the early months of his administration. The most obvious change was secession of southern states and the ensuing Civil War. The second was the Republican Party’s expectations for political patronage after eight years of Democratic rule. Lincoln had been circumspect about patronage before his election, instructing John G. Nicolay to tell a potential ally that “my motto is ‘fairness to all’ – But committ [sic] me to nothing.” 42 The third was the country’s long history of southern domination of the national government.
In The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860, Leonard Richards detailed how completely southerners ruled the government in the period before the Civil War. He noted that southerners occupied the presidency for over two-thirds of that period. A similar proportion of Speakers of the House and Senate presidents pro tempore were southerners. Southerners dominated the Supreme Court – and effectively constituted a “Slave Power” that overruled the northern majority. 43 During the 1850s, wrote historian William E. Gienapp wrote: “Republicans understood more clearly than their opponents, and more clearly than even southern leaders, that the South’s program led ultimately to the position that only the nationalization of slavery would make the institution secure.” Gienapp defined the Slave Power “as a vested interest based on the ownership of slave property, which had a unique set of economic, social and political concerns, and which wielded disproportionate power in state and national affairs, the Slave Power was not a figment of the Republican imagination.” 44
The Civil War dramatically expanded presidential powers as Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and the Constitution. In his special Message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln stressed how secession undermined the Constitution: “The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed, were being resisted, and failing of execution, in nearly one third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear, that by the use of the means necessary to their execution, some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizen’s liberty, that practically, it relieves more of the guilty, than of the innocent, should, to a very limited extent, be violated? To state the question more directly, should all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” 45 Lincoln was determined vigorously to use his powers “to maintain this contest until successful, or ’till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.” 46
Although President Lincoln was slow to exercise his powers in the first five weeks of his administration, he took the reigns of power very tightly after the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861. Historian Allan G. Bogue wrote: “Before the Thirty-seventh Congress had assembled in its emergency session of July 1861, Lincoln had exercised his powers as commander in chief to call out the militia, expand the regular army, authorize agents to purchase ships and military and naval ordnance, and suspend the writ of habeas corpus in certain districts. In performing these actions, Lincoln could look in justification to the ‘war power,’ a constitutional element that was, thought Democratic Senator David Turpie, more elastic than India rubber and more malleable or ductile than gold or silver.” 47
Under the circumstances, Lincoln exercised power prudentially to prevent dissolution of the country. That required use of military force. Without Lincoln’s elastic notion of presidential powers there would have been no Union victory. Williams noted: “Lincoln was willing to let first the military and then the Congress take the lead on most national issues – save the most important one: the overall conduct of the war, and the overarching goal of reconstituting and preserving the Union.” 48 But as Williams also noted, Lincoln was prudent in the use of his presidential power – choosing to exercise the sweeping powers of the First and Second Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 very carefully. “Very little property was ever confiscated as a result of the Act,” noted Williams. 49 Still, they were important legal tools that Lincoln could potentially use.
Many Republicans wanted Lincoln to take far stronger action. In November 1862, Lincoln responded to General Carl Schurz, a Republican who complained that the president’s policies had led to defeats in the recent elections: ” I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and that I will be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me. I understand you now to be willing to accept the help of men, who are not republicans, provided they have ‘heart in it.’ Agreed. I want no others. But who is to be the judge of hearts, or of ‘heart in it’? If I must discard my own judgment, and take yours, I must also take that of others; and by the time I should reject all I should be advised to reject, I should have none left, republicans, or others–not even yourself. For, be assured, my dear sir, there are men who have ‘heart in it’ that think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine. I certainly have been dissatisfied with the slowness of [Don Carlos] Buell and [George B.] McClellan; but before I relieved them I had great fears I should not find successors to them, who would do better; and I am sorry to add, that I have seen little since to relieve those fears. I do not clearly see the prospect of anymore rapid movements. I fear we shall at last find out that the difficulty is in our case, rather than in particular generals. I wish to disparage no one – certainly not those who sympathize with me; but I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers, than from those who are denounced as the contrary.” 50
On issues concerning war and reunion, Lincoln insisted on being the supreme commander. He was jealous of presidential prerogatives. He refused to yield key decisions on the war and emancipation to either Congress or army generals. President Lincoln kept control of the slavery issue through a series of deft maneuvers – beginning with his rejection of orders for military emancipation authored by John C. Frémont in August 1861 and then by General David Hunter in May 1862. Lincoln legal scholar Paul Finkelman wrote that Lincoln “rebuked Hunter for acting without authority, but he did not reject the theory behind Hunter’s general order: that slavery was incompatible with both a free country and the smooth operation of military forces suppressing the rebellion.” 51 The rejection of actions by his generals prepared the way for presidential emancipation that Lincoln thought was constitutional permissible. Historian James A. Dueholm wrote: “Lincoln took the step on September 22, 1862. One year to the day after he told [Illinois Senator Orville H.] Browning that he did not have the power to emancipate slaves by decree, he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.” 52 In the Final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln announced: “Now therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested, as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army, and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a proper and necessary war measure for the suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my intention to do, publicly proclaimed for one hundred days as aforesaid, order and designate as the States and parts of States in which the people thereof respectively are this day in rebellion against the United States.” 53
As the war continued, the pressures on the President grew. Exercising the powers of the presidency became an ever-growing burden. President Lincoln in April 1862 told the Rev. Noyes W. Miner, a Springfield friend: “This getting the nomination for president and being elected is all very pleasant to a man’s ambition, but to be the president and to meet the responsibilities and discharge the duties of the office in times like these is anything but pleasant. I would gladly, if I could, take my neck from under the yoke and go home with you to Springfield and live, as I used, in peace with my friends than to endure this harassing kind of life. But it has pleased Almighty God to place me in my present position, and, looking up to Him for wisdom and divine guidance, I must work out my destiny as best I can.” 54 For Lincoln, there was a power even higher than the Constitution. Lucas Morel wrote: “Lincoln came to discover that his much-vaunted devotion to the rule of law and the Constitution, even his leadership of a war effort to preserve what he considered ‘the last best, hope of earth,’ apparently fell short of the purposes of the Almighty.” 55
President Lincoln understood that there were numerous aspirants to occupy his chair who did not begin to comprehend its burdens. During a meeting of the Lincoln cabinet in 1865, Postmaster General William Dennison commented on the shabby nature of the President’s office chair and suggested that a better one was in order. “You think that’s not a good chair, Governor?” said President Abraham Lincoln. “There are a great many people that want to sit in it, though. I’m sure I’ve often wished some of them had it instead of me.” 56 New York attorney Abram J. Dittenhoefer recalled President Lincoln tell him: “I do the best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” 57
Lincoln had clear strategic goals, but he adjusted his tactics as circumstances demanded. “I have no policy; my hope is to save the Union,” President Lincoln told General John M. Palmer, a fellow Illinoisan. “I do the best I can today, with the hope that when tomorrow comes I am ready for its duty. 58 He made similar statements at other times during the Civil War, most famously in a letter to Kentucky editor Albert G. Hodges in April 1864. General Palmer, a longtime Illinois acquaintance of President Lincoln, reported visiting the President during the war and telling him: “Mr. Lincoln, if I had known there was going to be so great a rebellion, I should never have thought of going to a one-horse town for a one-horse lawyer for President.” Mr. Lincoln replied: “Nor I either. It’s lucky for this country no man was chosen who had a great policy, and would have stuck to it. If such a man had been chosen, this rebellion would never have reached a successful conclusion. I have had no great policy; but I have tried to do my duty every day, hoping that the morrow would find that I had done right.” 59
Lincoln struggled to act correctly and lawfully, but with a strong sense of the limitations of his position. His was a tough and stressful job. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “It is one thing to recognize that the stress and pain of a terrible war should cause Lincoln, or anyone else in a like position, to search for the meaning of such trauma in the divine will. It is quite another to construct an interpretation around the theme of passivity.” Lincoln’s overstated his own passivity in his letter to Albert Hodges in April 1864 which he concluded: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected, God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” 60
The Constitution and his presidential oath of office were Lincoln’s guiding stars. “It was in the oath I took that was in the oath I took that I would, to be the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Lincoln wrote to Hodges. “I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgement on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. An I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government – that nation – of which that constitution was the organic law.”
Lincoln’s alleged passivity must be judged by his deeds as well as his words. McPherson wrote: “Lincoln’s letter to Hodges must be understood in its context. Hodges and other Kentucky Unionists felt betrayed by Lincoln’s emancipation policy and by the large-scale recruitment of slaves from Kentucky for the Union army – which of course freed those slaves and eventually their families. Many Kentuckians considered these actions a violation of Lincoln’s original pledge to fight only to restore the Union and his exemption of Kentucky from the Emancipation Proclamation.” 61 The war forced Lincoln to act in ways contrary to his nature. A careful man had to make very bold and controversial decisions. William Lee Miller wrote: “The new President whose huge April decisions had brought this war footing to the capital was in his own original nature a quite unusually peaceful, uncontentious, unbelligerent man. He himself would remark on the incongruity of his being in this position – ‘a man who couldn’t cut a chicken’s head off – with blood running all around me.’” 62
Lincoln understood that he governed at the intersection of Divine Providence, public opinion and presidential initiative. Lincoln’s fellow Illinoisan, Governor Richard Yates, observed of the President: “He was by far, too modest when he said in his letter to Hodges, that he ‘claimed not to have controlled events.’ The truth is, that while he aimed to consult the popular will, because he knew that that will was the power of the government, yet he did much to shape that will and to bring the people to believe in, and to do, what he wanted and intended should be done.” 63 Yates had reason to know – because the President refused to be bullied into appointments by old Illinois political friends such as Yates and State Treasurer William Butler. When in 1862 they pushed General John Pope for elevation to major general, President Lincoln replied: “I fully appreciate Gen. Pope’s splendid achievements with their invaluable results; but you must know that Major Generalships in the Regular Army, are not as plenty as blackberries.” 64 Three months later, he did indeed give Pope a new command of the Army defending Washington.
That summer, Yates got into another tussle with the President, who wrote Governor Yates: “I am pained to hear that you reject the service of an officer we sent to assist in organizing and getting off troops. Pennsylvania and Indiana accepted officers, kindly; and the now have more than twice as many new troops in the field, as all the other states together. If Illinois had got forward as many troops as Indiana, Cumberland Gap would soon be relieved from it’s present peril. Please do not ruin us on punctilio.” 65 Yates punched back: “I have received your unjust despatch. I have not rejected the service of any officer – the statement is false.” Yates wrote: “Illinois may be behind in getting her troops into the field, because you sent your paymasters, and mustering officers, to Pennsylvania, and Indiana first, but I assert sir, that no State has done more in so short a time, than Illinois has, without aid from your paymasters, and mustering officers, and I point with pride to 50,000 men now ready to go into the field; and only delayed, not by me, but for the want of blankets, tents, guns camp kettles &c, which comes from your departments – I regard your despatch as unkind to me, and unjust to your State.” Butler and State Auditor Jesse K. Dubois added an endorsement: “We know what Gov. Yates says to be true, and if your Army officers, were as loyal and efficient as he is, you would hear less complaint. Who is your chief mustering officer here? Is it Col Morrison or Gen Judah?” 66
The President did not give ground, writing back to Yates: “Yours denying that you have rejected the service of an officer sent you by us, is received. Of course I do not question your word; and yet what I have said was based upon direct evidence; and I the more readily gave credit to it because I had previously had so much trouble between officers sent to Illinois and State government there. I certainly can not conceive what it was I said which can be construed as injustice to Illinois. I knew by your despatches that Ills. had raised an unexpectedly large number of troops, and my impatience was that none of them could be got forward. I supposed my patience was that none of them could be got forward. I supposed too, and know nothing to be contrary yet, that the government had made the same provision for Illinois as for Pennsylvania and Indiana..” 67 Respect for Lincoln’s even-handed actions in these cases was not universal. Lincoln believed that it was more important to placate his enemies than his friends. Many of Lincoln’s oldest Illinois friends were critical of him and disappointed in the patronage Lincoln distributed. Lincoln dealt deftly with their impatience. At one point, in 1862, President Lincoln responded to Yates’ hectoring with a brief telegram: “Hold still, Dick, and see the salvation of the Lord.” 68
Later, Yates witnessed how President Lincoln dealt with his most strong-willed subordinate, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a man who once had insulted Lincoln when they were co-counsels in an Ohio trial. John M. Snyder recalled an incident in which the President first tried persuasion and when that failed, resorted to power in order to get his way with Stanton:
I accompanied him to Washington just before he was elected United States Senator. Among the duties we had to perform was to make an effort to secure the discharge of Colonel Robert B Latham of the 106th Illinois Infantry. At that critical time, Secretary Stanton had issued a very stringent order prohibiting any officer from leaving his command or obtaining a furlough. Colonel Latham was in the hospital at Louisville, Kentucky. We called on President Lincoln at the White House to ask him to discharge Colonel Latham. It became my duty to present the case to the President and I told him that Colonel Latham was in the hospital at Louisville, and unless he could be sent home he would probably never recover. The President asked me who was Lieutenant Colonel of the Regiment. I told him that the Governor’s brother, Henry Yates, was Lieutenant Colonel. He replied, ‘Well, Henry is all right and I have no fears as to who will command.’ Mr. Lincoln said, ‘Well, you know Stanton, but we will walk over to the war department and see what we can do.’ We walked over to the war department and presented ourselves at the secretaries [sic] outer office. He was very busy writing dispatches and turned and said, ‘Gentlemen, I will see you in a moment,’ without turning around. He had on a very large pair of glasses and certainly looked very formidable. After a few moments we were ushered into his private office and Mr. Lincoln said, ‘Mr. Stanton, I know your order to have all officers with their command and I have approved the same. I must however, state a case to you which is this: ‘Governor Yates tells me that Colonel Robert B. Latham of the 10th Illinois, is in a critical condition in the hospital at Louisville.’ Mr. Stanton turned upon him and said, ‘Well, Mr. President you know very well that if you violate that order in one case you surely will have to do the same in others, and its effect will be demoralizing to the army, and I hope you will not ask me to violate that order.’ Lincoln replied, ‘Mr. Stanton, I know this Colonel personally. He went into the army from a town in Illinois named after me. I have known him for many years as one of the best men [in] that community, and from what I can learn I wish you would issue an order honorably discharging Colonel Robert B. Latham from the United States service and wire this order to Louisville.’ Mr. Stanton looked up and said, ‘Is this the order of the President?’ Mr. Lincoln said, ‘Mr. Stanton, in this case, it is.’ Mr. Stanton then turned around and said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wire to Louisville, and if your secretary will call here in an hour I will give him the official order discharging Colonel Latham.’ At that we bade the secretary good bye and walked from there over to the White House. During the walk from the War Department to the White House, Mr. Lincoln put his hand on Governor Yates’ shoulder and said, “Dick sometimes when I am dealing with Stanton, I make up my mind that I haven’t much influence with this administration after all.’ We then walked to the front of the White House, and Mr. Lincoln said, ‘Boys, I wish I could go back to Illinois with you, but I guess it is impossible so I’ll have to stay here and stick it out to the end.’” 69
The support of the Republican Party was a prerequisite to President Lincoln’s success, but it was always a difficult balancing act where patronage was concerned. Lincoln’s unique style often perplexed his friends and infuriated his enemies. Illinois attorney Leonard Swett wrote that Mr. Lincoln “managed his politics upon a plan entirely different from any other man the country has ever produced. It was by ignoring men, and ignoring all small causes, but by closely calculating the tendencies of events and the great forces which were producing logical results.” 70 He did so with surprising directness. Congressman James G. Blaine recalled: “There was never the slightest lack of candor or fairness in his methods. He sought to c ontrol men through their reason and their conscience. The only art he employed was that of presenting his views so convincingly as to force conviction on the minds of his hearers and his readers.” 71
Lincoln understood the necessities of political patronage to reenforce his presidential power, and he understood it was sometimes more important to mollify his enemies than gratify his friends. Lincoln was also very conscious of the limits of his powers. About a month before he was assassinated, a Baltimore journalist watched the President respond to visitors. The widow of a Union soldier asked for a patronage appointment to be postmaster of a New York village. Lincoln said “he could not act on it at once; for, although he was president, she must remember that he was but one horse in the team, and if the others pulled in a different direction, it would be a hard matter for him to out-pull them.” 72 A Union soldier who had been wounded in battle asked for a civilian job for himself. Lincoln told him “that he was disposed to favor the application, but that he must wait to hear from the member of Congress from that district. He would be forever in hot water if he did not pay some deference to the wishes of members on these appointments.” 73
Lincoln disliked to give imperious orders. He preferred to persuade rather than to order. Lincoln was a firm believer in the use of persuasion – in and out of government. “Discourage litigation,” Lincoln wrote in notes for a law lecture in 1850. “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser – in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.” 74 Lincoln practiced the fine art of compromise and adjudication of disputes – just as he had as a young man in New Salem when he brokered disputes and broke up fights. Lincoln did not seek collisions with others – politically or physically. War Department telegrapher David Homer Bates reported that Secretary of State William H. Seward once “said he had been told that a short time before, on a street crossing, Lincoln had been seen to turn out in the mud to give a colored woman a chance to pass. ‘Yes,’ said Lincoln, ‘it has been a rule of my life that if people would not turn out for me, I would turn out for them. Then you avoid collisions.” 75 But although Mr. Lincoln did not seek collision, as President he did not turn away from them when to do so would have violated important principles.
From the onset in 1832 of his political career, Lincoln had acknowledged his own ambition. But there were limits to his ambition imposed by principle. Lincoln concluded his 1858 campaign against Senator Stephen A. Douglas by saying: “Ambition has been ascribed to me. God knows how sincerely I prayed from the first that this field of ambition might not be opened. I claim no insensibility to political honors; but today could the Missouri restriction be restored, and the whole slavery question replaced on the old ground of ‘toleration['] by necessity where it exists, with unyielding hostility to the spread of it, on principle, I would, in consideration, gladly agree, that Judge Douglas should never be out, and I never in, an office so long as we both or either, live.” 76
President Lincoln combined flexibility with fairness. James M. McPherson wrote that “Once he made a decision he stuck with it – a matter of no small importance when the issues became Union or Disunion, Victory or Defeat, Slavery or Freedom. Lincoln once said to prominent political leaders who urged him to back away from the Emancipation Proclamation or face possible defeat for reelection in 1864: ‘The promise, being made, must be kept.’” 77 What secessionists failed to realize was that he longer that the Civil War continued, the higher the price they would pay for their ultimate defeat. Old compromises made in the original Constitution most necessarily by an amended Constitution.
Mr. Lincoln’s concept of his presidential powers was challenged more by Congress than by his obstreperous Cabinet. Historian Allan Nevins wrote that Mr. Lincoln’s “outward suavity was controlled by an iron resolution, and he was capable of bolder action than a Cromwell. Underneath half the debates of the session ran an implied discussion of the basic question: Where did the Constitution place the ultimate sovereignty in waging war and controlling the Presidency. [Congressman] Thad Stevens, applying to the suppression of rebellion the clause which authorized Congress to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution its stated authority, declared that the two houses ‘possess all the powers now claimed under the Constitution, even the tremendous power of dictatorship.’ [Senator Charles] Sumner made the same sweeping assertion, ‘I claim for Congress all that belongs to any government in the exercise of the right of war,’ he said, adding, ‘it is by an act of Congress that the war powers are set in motion. When once in motion the President must execute them. But he is only the instrument of Congress under the Constitution of the United States.’ This went further than [Massachusetts Senator] Henry Wilson’s declaration that Congress was to make the laws defining policy, and the Executive was simply to administer them: ‘I had rather give a policy to the President of the United States.’ But it was no more drastic than the statement by Lyman Trumbull that inasmuch as the President was a mere executor of Congressional law, ‘He is just as subject to our control as if we appointed him, except that we cannot remove him and appoint another in his place.’” 78
President Lincoln had his own strong sense of what constitutionally permissible and constitutionally prohibited. When challenged by Michigan Senator Zachary Chandler about his reluctance to sign the Wade-Davis reconstruction bill, President Lincoln replied:
“I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.” 79 Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: “The expansion of federal power during the Civil War was closely associated with an expansion of executive power within the federal government. On this latter subject, it appears easy to speak unequivocally; for most historians agree with the statement of Clinton Rossiter that Lincoln ‘pushed the powers of the Presidency to a new plateau high above any conception of executive authority hitherto imagined in this country.’ Samuel Eliot Morison said that he came near to being the ideal tyrant of whom Plato dream,’ and Lord Bryce, in The American Commonwealth, compared him to a Roman dictator.” 80 But whatever Lincoln did, he did to preserve the Constitution and the Union.
Lincoln understood that power was necessary to do good. Ambition was necessary to get power, as Lincoln himself acknowledged when he first campaigned for public office in 1832. Although Lincoln acknowledged his ambition, he was not driven by it. William H. Herndon testified to Lincoln’s ambition: “He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” 81 “Mr. Lincoln was an ambitious man, but he desired power less for the sake of prestige or authority than for the opportunities it presented of being useful and beneficent in its exercise,” observed friend Ward Hill Lamon. “Eagerly as he sought the approval of his fellow-citizens where this could be attained without sacrifice of principle, he was always generous in according to others whatever would lead to public approval,” wrote Lamon. 82
The exercise of his power in wartime required President Lincoln to be an usually an astute judge of character. Aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “Mr. Lincoln understood the people very well. He was a sort of revolutionary dictator. He was ready and willing to use all powers given him by his unwritten commission to ‘See to it that the Commonwealth suffers no harm.’ He was also a Constitutional President, under an oath to protect the rights of all citizens of every part of the country.” 83 Union army officer William E. Doster observed: “Measuring people around him, Lincoln seemed to know thoroughly what was valuable about them and what was not. Seward might be over-confident, but that was a good thing, when everybody else had the blues. Chase might be ambitious, but he knew how to raise funds. Stanton might be irritable and violent, but he had energy, and unquestioned loyalty. The judgment of [Gideon] Welles, if slow, was sound. [George] McClellan lacked the fighting instinct and might be no match for Lee, but who was? And was not McClellan the idol of his army? [Horace] Greeley might be erratic, but he was sincere.” 84
Illinois friend Shelby M. Cullom recalled President Lincoln’s reaction in February 1864 to the Pomeroy Circular supporting the presidential candidacy of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase: “He was of too kindly a disposition, too great a man to punish any one for being against him, but at the same time he was more far-seeing than others. He knew that to remove Chase would only make a martyr of him; to send him back to Ohio would only place him in a position to make trouble for the administration, and so he simply let him alone, which was by far the wisest thing to do.” Cullom urged Lincoln to dismiss Chase after the Pomeroy letter. The President said to him: “Let him alone; he can do no more harm where he is than on the outside.” 85
Emancipation and reconstruction were particular points of conflict. Historian William B. Hesseltine wrote: “Radical Republicans and critical Democrats alike saw in Lincoln’s announced plan and developing program the clear specter of executive usurpation. The Democrats, however, were inclined to remain relatively quiet while Lincoln and the Radicals battled over the issue. 86 Lincoln was not shy in confronting either Congress or the Supreme Court. He confronted – or rather ignored – Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Merryman case concerning habeas corpus in Maryland. Lincoln sought to avoid the intrusion of the Supreme Court into the conduct of the war and his emancipation of the slaves. He used the war powers of the presidency to cloak his actions in legitimacy. He also sought to delay any Supreme Court oversight of those actions. Knowing that Supreme Court was controlled by his enemies, Lincoln was reluctant to give them power to reverse his decisions.
Of Merryman, historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. wrote: “Both the president and the chief justice of the United States were expanding the power of their branches of government, most likely, beyond what the Constitution allowed. Lincoln’s strong view has long been recognized as such, but not Taney’s.” Neely argued that Taney misused Section 14 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which stated “[E]ither of the Justices of the Supreme Court, as well as Judges of the district Courts, shall have power to grant writs of Habeas Corpus for the purpose of an enquiry into the cause of commitment…” However, Neely argued that it is reasonable to construe that section as unconstitutional since it expands the powers that Supreme Court has under original jurisdiction. “Taney grabbed the power. He did not look behind it to see whether jurisdiction was really his, constitutionally,” wrote Nicolay. 87
Because President Buchanan had at first delayed and later bungled an appointment to a vacant Supreme Court seat, President Lincoln had an opportunity to make the appointment to the nation’s top court vacancy soon after his inauguration. A second vacancy occurred when Justice John McLean died a month after Lincoln took office. As Lincoln scholar William D. Pederson noted: “Timing ultimately was Lincoln’s ally in dealing with the Supreme Court, for he was able to name five new justices to the Court, including the replacement for Taney, who died on October 12. 1864….The revised composition of the Court…increased the likelihood that his most important legacies would be upheld by it after the Civil War ended.” 88 Until Taney died and Lincoln had a chance to change the composition of the court, Lincoln was very careful not to provide the Taney court with an opportunity to overrule administration policy. That was particularly true of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Paul Finkelman notes was “narrowly written, carefully designed to withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.” 89
Exercising power was a difficult balancing game – as Lincoln showed in his nuanced First Inaugural in March 1861. Lincoln needed to preserve the unity of the Republican Party even as he reached beyond his base. Historian Russell McClintock wrote: “Lincoln’s tone was mild and unthreatening, yet he deviated not an inch from the Chicago platform.” 90 Balance would prove important to Lincoln’s administration. Lincoln scholar William D. Pederson wrote: “Lincoln was neither an abolitionist nor a southern planter, but a politician who wanted to both preserve the Union and uphold a Constitution that recognized slavery. As the war evolved, so did his jurisprudence, allowing Lincoln to reveal himself as genuinely committed to human rights.” 91
As president-elect, Lincoln took a limited view of his presidential powers, writing in a speech to be delivered in Pittsburgh on his way to Washington in February 1861: “By the constitution, the executive may recommend measures which he may think proper; and he may veto those he thinks improper; and it is supposed he may add to these, certain indirect influences to affect the action of congress. My political education strongly inclines me against a very free use of any of these means, by the Executive, to control the legislation of the country. As a rule, I think it better that congress should originate, as well as perfect its measures, without external bias. I therefore would rather recommend to every gentleman who knows he is to be a member of the next congress, to take an enlarged view, and post himself thoroughly so as to contribute his part to such an adjustment of the tariff, as shall produce a sufficient revenue, and in… its other bearings, so far as possible, be just and equal to all sections of the country & classes of the people. 92
Lincoln’s personal behavior complemented his political attitudes. New York Journalist John Bigelow observed President Lincoln at the White House early in his presidency and observed: “What did impress me…was what I can only describe as a certain lack of sovereignty. He seemed to me, nor was it in the least strange that he did, like a man utterly unconscious of the space which the President the United States occupied that day in the history of the human race, and of the vast power for the exercise of which he had become personally responsible.” 93
Lincoln’s priority was to restore the Union and to end secession, not to end slavery. His presidential power came from the Constitution not his moral beliefs. Historian Nicholas Parrillo wrote: “In the first months of war, Lincoln’s views on slavery in relation to providence shifted moderately, while remaining basically within their original framework.” Whereas Lincoln previously believed that slavery was on the course of ultimate extinction, he shifted to a belief “that the war itself had provided the impetus to begin that gradual process: in his message to Congress that December , he anticipated that many slaves would be freed by the chances of war and by gradual emancipation plans that the states might adopt as a result of the crisis.” 94 Historian Richard N. Current wrote that “Lincoln in the beginning was most reluctant to use his presidential powers against slavery. During his first year and more in office he lagged well behind the majority of his party in the cause of freedom.” 95
Lincoln realized that he needed both the Constitution and public opinion behind him in order to strike at slavery. He also needed to use his constitutional powers as commander in chief in a time of war. He used them both aggressively and mercifully. The Civil War presented the commander in chief with unprecedented power. Lincoln balanced power with mercy – especially in his liberal use of pardoning power. Lincoln saw the macro as well as the micro picture. “No man clothed with such vast power ever wielded it more tenderly and more forbearingly,” wrote Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax. “No man holding in his hands the key of life and death ever pardoned so many offenders and so easily. Judge Bates, of Missouri, his Attorney-General, insisted that lack of sternness was a marked defect in Lincoln’s character. He told Mr. Lincoln once in my presence that his defect made him unfit to be trusted with the pardoning power. Any touching story, specially one told by a woman, was certain to warp if not to control decision. One winter night, while Congress was in session, I left all other business and asked him to pardon the son of a former constituent sentenced to be shot at Davenport Barracks, Iowa, for desertion. He heard the story with his usual patience, although worried out with incessant calls and cares, then replied: ‘Some of my generals complain that I impair discipline by my frequent pardons and reprieves; but it rests me, after a day’s hard work, that I can find some excuse for saving some poor fellow’s life, and I shall go to bed happy to-night as I think how joyous the signing of this name will make himself, his family and friends.’ And with a smile beaming on his care-furrowed face, he signed that name and saved that life.” 96
Contemporaries and historians have differed in their evaluations of Lincoln’s executive style. The President’s own cabinet included many members who on occasion doubted the way he wielded power. “The Prest. is an excellent man,…but he lacks will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command,” wrote Attorney General Edward Bates on December 31, 1861. 97 Like Bates, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles often confided to his diary his doubts about Lincoln’s decisions. Lincoln’s secretaries, however, had a different perspective. Mr. Lincoln gained confidence in the exercise of his powers during the first two years in office. In August 1863, aide John Hay wrote John Nicolay: “The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once. I never knew with what tyrannous authority he rules the cabinet, till now. The most important things he decides & there is no cavil. I am growing more and more firmly convinced that the good of the country absolutely demands that he should be kept where he is till this thing is over. There is no man in the country, so wise so gentle and so firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is.” 98
Mr. Lincoln certainly had not been passive when confronted by the effrontery and usurpation of William H. Seward’s April 1, 1861 missive to Lincoln in which Seward not too subtly asserted he should take control of the government. In response to Seward’s suggestion that “what policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it,” the President responded: “I remark that if this must be done, I must do it.” Aide William O. Stoddard noted in his Lincoln biography that it was evidence of “Mr. Lincoln’s reserved force, of the real power of the man…” 99 Mr. Lincoln’s reply to Seward (which may not have actually been delivered to Seward) exemplified his willingness to assert himself over his disputatious cabinet. The president first quoted from Seward’s letter: “Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or Devolve it on some member of his cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide.” President Lincoln then wrote: “When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have, the advice of all the cabinet.” 100 Mr. Lincoln delegated much power to his Cabinet but kept key powers to himself. Treasury official George S. Boutwell observed: “Mr. Lincoln was indifferent to those matters of government that were relatively unimportant; but he devoted himself with conscientious diligence to the graver questions and topics of official duty, and in the first months of his administration, at a moment of supreme peril, by his pre-eminent wisdom, of which there remains indubitable proof, he saved the country from a foreign war.” 101
As President, Lincoln had an open style of leadership which accommodated both supporters and critics. Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “He did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against ‘enemies’ – indeed, he tried not to have enemies.” 102 Journalist Allen Thorndike Rice wrote: “Wielding the power of a king, he retained the modesty of a commoner.” 103 Visitors to the White House, both powerful and powerless, testified to Mr. Lincoln’s common touch. Young Robert B. Stanton recalled going to the White House with his father in 1861: “On that, to me, memorable evening he discussed with my father this phase of his administration of national and State affairs, for undoubtedly he had overstepped State rights. He freely acknowledged that some things he had done, and decisions he had made, were possibly beyond his constitutional right to do. Yet he knew the necessity, and with his bold, unafraid determination, and his clear and marvelous insight into the true nature of things, he, in those emergencies, did what he felt to be right, as God gave him the vision to see the right. Lincoln knew that timing was critical in the exercise of power.” Stanton wrote:
How did he explain his actions? In these few simple, and even humorous, words: “I am like the Irishman, I have to do some things ‘unbeknownst to myself.’”
He never sought nor desired the opportunity to exercise his power, as is so clearly shown by his long, patient, yet sorrowful consideration before he performed his greatest act [the Emancipation Proclamation]. This, also, he at other times discussed with my father. The one object he always kept in view was to save the Union of the States, and not simply to abolish slavery. And he continued unmoved by the howls of all abolitiondom and the arguments of those who thought they knew better than he, patiently waiting for the proper time, to do the right thing. And when he found it, and not before, then it was he used his power and put his name to the Emancipation Proclamation.” 104
President Lincoln had to recognize and harmonize many different constituencies, noted historian Albert Bushnell Hart: “At least four different elements may be distinguished in the supporters of Mr. Lincoln’s administration; first, the anti-slavery Republicans, of whom [Salmon P.] Chase was the only distinct representative in the cabinet; second, the moderate Republicans, of whom a type, if not a leader, was Seward; third, the war Democrats, at first headed by Stephen A. Douglas, who offered his personal support and aid to the President, and who, with his followers, believed and expected that the war would be finished without affecting slavery in the States; fourth, the loyal border-state men, many of them slaveholders, represented in the South by [John] Crittenden, and in the cabinet by Bates and Montgomery Blair. Such men adhered to the Union under the assurance that their property rights would be safeguarded.” 105 Understandably, at least one of the groups was usually angry with him.
Presidential power depended on Lincoln’s ability to rally his political base and to concentrate on the doable. Mark W Summers wrote: “Practical rather than theoretical in all other things and willing to have God on his side but aware that he must have Kentucky, he took on fights he could win. The fight to save the Union: that was possible. The fight to drive greed and self-interest out of a politics powered by both was as mad as making a southern Republican Party out of customshouse clerks and post office poll workers.” 106
Reason rather than emotion governed both Lincoln’s rhetoric and his exercise of power. Historian James G. Randall wrote: “Lincoln’s leadership was intellectual, but at the same time stirring, restrained, but with the rallying power of a bugle….Reason and sentiment with Lincoln were in balance. Both, he knew, were requisite to a wholesome personality. He could touch the chords of human feeling but never with the tearful appeal. There was no play acting in his emotional passages.” 107 Lincoln’s leadership was an exercise in extraordinary restraint and balance. Scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “In a letter to a Louisiana Unionist in 1862…he stopped himself and said: “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.’ That sobering awareness of the vastness of the stage on which they acted and of the vast reach of their deeds (as Lincoln would say ‘to the latest generation’) runs throughout Lincoln’s presidential utterances.” 108
But President Lincoln’s position required sending clear signals of his intentions to a constellation of politicians and interests. Biographer William Barton wrote: “On the night of the  inaugural ball, Stephen Fiske, the Washington correspondent of the New York Herald, asked Mr. Lincoln if he had any message to send to James Gordon Bennett, editor of that paper. Bennett was frankly antagonistic to Lincoln and his administration. ‘Yes,’ answered Lincoln. ‘you may tell him that [New York Republican political boss] Thurlow Weed has found out that Seward was not nominated at Chicago.’” Barton concluded:
Not for some time did the correspondent understand that this was one of Lincoln’s jokes. It was a very serious joke; it was Lincoln’s declaration that he was master of the situation. Thurlow Weed, who had been endeavoring to crowd [Salmon P.] Chase out of the Cabinet, and Seward, who had declined a secretaryship on the very eve of the nomination, had both discovered that Weed had not succeeded either in the nomination or in the control of the executive.” 109
Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “For good reason a journalist concluded that “Lincoln is found to possess a will of his own. He is as firm as a rock when he once thinks he is right.’” 110 President Lincoln understood the power of his position, but he did not over-dramatize his importance. The position, not the occupant, was important to the nation. New York journalist-politician Henry J. Raymond wrote” “Nothing was more marked in Mr. Lincoln’s personal demeanor than his utter unconsciousness of his position. It would be difficult, if not impossible to find another man who would not, upon a sudden transfer from the obscurity of private life in a country town to the dignities and duties of the Presidency, feel it incumbent upon him to assume something of the manner and tone befitting that position. Mr. Lincoln never seemed to be aware that his place or his business were essentially different from those in which he had always been engaged. He brought to every question – the loftiest and most imposing – the same patient inquiry into details, the same eager longing to know and to do exactly what was just and right, and the same working-day, plodding, laborious devotion, which characterized his management of a client’s case at his law office in Springfield. He had duties to perform in both places – in the once case to his country, as his client in the other. But all duties were alike to him. All called equally upon him for the best service of his mind and heart, and all were alike performed with a conscientious, single-hearted devotion that knew no distinction, but was absolute and perfect in every case.” 111
President Lincoln’s conception of power was delineated in a letter he sent to Democrats in Albany, New York. They were complaining of the arrest of Copperhead Democrat Clement Vallandigham in Ohio in May 1863. Lincoln used the occasion to lay out his conception of his job in wartime: “You ask, in substance, whether I really claim that I may override all the guarrantied rights of individuals, on the plea of conserving the public safety – when I may choose to say the public safety requires it. This question, divested of the phraseology calculated to represent me as struggling for an arbitrary personal prerogative, is either simply a question who shall decide, or an affirmation that nobody shall decide, what the public safety does require, in cases of Rebellion or Invasion. The constitution contemplates the question as likely to occur for decision, but it does not expressly declare who is to decide it. By necessary implication, when Rebellion or Invasion comes, the decision is to be made from time to time; and I think the man whom, for the time, the people have, under the constitution, made the commander-in-chief, of their Army and Navy, is the man who holds the power, and bears the responsibility of making it. If he uses the power justly, the same people will probably justify him; if he abuses it, he is their hands, to be dealt with by all the modes they have reserved to themselves in the constitution.” 112 Historian Mark Neely wrote: “There was nothing temporary about the president’s power in Lincoln’s view as expressed in 1863. He now suggested a radical democratic justification with the flavor of a Jacksonian interpretation of the presidency about it.” 113
Historian David H. Donald argued that President Lincoln was inconsistent in his use of power – strong where the South and war powers were concerned but weaker in his relations with Congress and his own Cabinet. Congress, like Lincoln, jealously guarded its prerogatives – the Senate in 1865 even passing a resolution condemning President Lincoln’s impertinence in mistakenly signing the Thirteenth Amendment. Donald argued: “To most of his departmental chiefs Lincoln gave a completely free hand…Even over a critical area like the Treasury Department Lincoln exerted little control.” 114 Donald contended that Lincoln had a Whig conception of power. “Lincoln’s curious failure to assert his control over his cabinet also derived from his basic Whig view of the presidency.” Donald wrote: “Since there was no real consultation to formulate common policy and since the President could not personally oversee the details of everyday administration, each secretary, however, disagreeable, self-promoting, or even conspiratorial, had a free hand in conducting his own department’s affairs.” 115 In exercising power, Mr. Lincoln was not always direct – even with his Cabinet. He tried to avoid giving explicit orders – even to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton or subordinate generals. Pennsylvania Republican leader Alexander K. McClure wrote about a northern governor who:
“…went to the War Department one day in a towering rage: “I suppose you found it necessary to make large concessions to him, as he returned from you perfectly satisfied,” suggested a friend. “Oh, no,” the President replied, “I did not concede anything. You have heard how that Illinois farmer got rid of a big log that was too big to haul out, too knotty to split, and too wet and soggy to burn. “‘Well, now,’ said he, in response to the inquiries of his neighbors one Sunday, as to how he got rid of it, ‘well, now, boys, if you won’t divulge the secret, I’ll tell you how I got rid of it – I ploughed around it.’ “Now,” remarked Lincoln, in conclusion, “don’t tell anybody, but that’s the way I got rid of Governor Blank. I ploughed all round him, but it took me three mortal hours to do it, and I was afraid every minute he’d see what I was at.” 116
Nevertheless, Mr. Lincoln’s self-deprecating style matched an iron conscience and a powerful determination to do the right thing. Pennsylvania Republican leader Alexander K. McClure wrote:”He was much more than a statesman; he was one of the most sagacious politicians I have ever known, although he was entirely unschooled in the machinery by which political results are achieved. His judgment of men was next to unerring, and when results were to be attained he knew the men who should be assigned to the task, and he rarely made a mistake.” 117 In response to a serenade by Maryland residents in mid-October 1864, Mr. Lincoln said: “Something said by the Secretary of State in his recent speech at Auburn, has been construed by some into a threat that, if I shall be beaten at the election, I will, between then and the end of my constitutional term, do what I may be able, to ruin the government.
Others regard the fact that the [Democratic] Chicago Convention adjourned, not sine die, but to meet again, if called to do so by a particular individual, as the intimation of a purpose that if their nominee shall be elected, he will at once seize control of the government. I hope the good people will permit themselves to suffer no uneasiness on either point. I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it. I therefore say, that if I shall live, I shall remain President until the fourth of next March; and that whoever shall be constitutionally elected therefor in November, shall be duly installed as President on the fourth of March; and that in the interval I shall do my utmost that whoever is to hold the helm for the next voyage, shall start with the best possible chance to save the ship.
This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own. I believe, however, they are still resolved to preserve their country and their liberty; and in this, in office or out of it, I am resolved to stand by them.
I may add that in this purpose to save the country and it’s liberties, no classes of people seem so nearly unanamous [sic] as the soldiers in the field and the seamen afloat. Do they not have the hardest of it? Who should quail while they do not?God bless the soldiers and seamen, with all their brave commanders. 118
Such communication was a key to Lincoln’s use of power. The disciplined use of language was useful on and off the battlefield. Frank Williams argued: “As commander-in-chief, Lincoln was careful to distinguish clearly between when he was giving orders and when he was making recommendations, when he expected to be obeyed and when he wished his views merely to be considered. In giving military analysis to General Don Carlos Buell he said, ‘I have not offered, and do not now offer them as orders; and while I am glad to have them respectfully considered, I would blame you to follow them contrary to your own clear judgment – unless I should put them in the form of orders.’” 119
Lincoln understood that he did not control events, but that did not mean he was passive. In 1862, the president wrote a Louisiana politician: “I am in boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.” 120 It was also too vast for rigid responses. Historian John David Smith wrote: “Lincoln in fact left the door open for change in policy, adding that he remained willing ‘to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.’” 121 Richard Carwardine wrote: “Lincoln’s commonly-noted fatalism, which he never shed, reflects the continuing legacy of his high Calvinist upbringing.” 122 Historian Allen C. Guelzo noted Mr. Lincoln’s adherence to the Doctrine of Necessity: “Necessity, at first blush, might be supposed to be the companion of passivity, and from time to time Lincoln did speak as though he was only a passive observer of his own life. But those who knew him intimately, like Orville Hickman Browning, saw that what his ‘fatalism’ produced was not a resigned passivity, but ‘a strong conviction that he was born for better things than seemed likely or even possible…I have no doubt that Mr. Lincoln believed that there was a predestined work for him in the world.”” 123
Lincoln’s natural fatalism combined with the necessities of his office to compel him to action. Wife Mary Todd Lincoln said “Mr Lincolns maxim and philosophy was – ‘What is to be will be and no cares of ours can arrest the decree.’” 124 Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “On one feature of Lincoln’s thought there was no disagreement. Lincoln described himself as a life-long fatalist, and one demurred. ‘What is to be will be,’ he told congressman Isaac Arnold. ‘I have found all my life as Hamlet says: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.”‘ Carwardine noted that William H. Herndon recalled many conversations about predestination in which Lincoln had asserted that ‘all things were fixed, doomed in one way or the other, from which there was no appeal’ and that ‘no efforts or prayers of ours can change, alter, modify, or reverse the decree’” 125 Journalist Noah Brooks wrote: “His practice of being controlled by events is well known. He often said that it was wise to wait for the developments of Providence; and the Scriptural phrase that ‘the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’ to him had a depth of meaning. Then, too, he liked to feel that he was the attorney of the people, not their ruler; and I believe that this idea was generally uppermost in his mind. Speaking of the probability of his second nomination, about two years ago, he said: ‘If the people think that I have managed their case for them well enough to trust me to carry up to the next term, I am sure that I shall be glad to take it.’” 126 However, even in the dark days of August 1864 when he thought it likely that he would be defeated for reelection, Lincoln did not stop working for victory – both his and the nation’s.
Lincoln learned how to move people to achieve his purposes. According to Lincoln friend Ward Hill Lamon, “The truth is, that Mr. Lincoln was at once the ablest and the most adroit politician of modern times. In all the history of the world I can recall no example of a great leader, having to do with a people in any degree free, who himself shaped and guided events to the same extent, unless it was Julius Caesar. Mr. Lincoln was not the creature of circumstances. He made circumstances to suit the necessities of his own situation. He was less influenced by the inferior minds around him than was Washington, Jefferson, or Jackson. His policy was invariably formed by his own judgment, and it seldom took even the slightest color from the opinions of others, however decided. In this originality and independence of understanding he resembled somewhat the great William of Orange.” 127
As President, Lincoln exercised prudence in wielding power – carefully judging the risks, benefits, and timing of his decisions. Although he was judged dilatory in some decisions, Lincoln knew he had a better perspective than his critics. Historian John F. Marszalek wrote: “In issuing the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamations, Lincoln demonstrated judgment, character, firmness, determination, the ability to make up his mind, and the ability to bring the matter to a conclusion. Halleck, in his dealings with McClellan and Burnside, refused to render judgment or make up his mind, he lacked firmness, character, and determination, and he was unable to bring matters to a conclusion.” 128 Lincoln did not rush to decisions. Neither did he delay them.
Speaking to a serenade outside the White House after his reelection in 1864, Lincoln said: “It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence, in great emergencies.
On this point the present rebellion brought our republic to a severe test; and a presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion added not a little to the strain. If the loyal people, united, were put to the utmost of their strength by the rebellion, must they not fail when divided, and partially paralyzed, by a political war among themselves?
But the election was a necessity.
We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. The strife of the election is but human-nature practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in this case, must ever recur in similar cases. Human-nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as a strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.
But the election, along with its incidental, and undesirable strife, has done good too. It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party, he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.
But the rebellion continues; and now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country? For my own part I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.
While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.
May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?
And now, let me close by asking three hearty cheers for our brave soldiers and seamen and their gallant and skilful commanders. 129
Lincoln pushed very deliberately for the Thirteenth Amendment – first insuring that it was a major part of the 1864 Republican National Platform and then lobbying for its passage that winter by the House of Representatives. Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley wrote that Mr. Lincoln told him during the debate over the 13th Amendment in the winter of 1864-1865: “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” 130 It is hard to imagine President Lincoln uttering those words but not hard to imagine him holding those expectations. America’s 16th president had first run for public office when he was 23 and for more than three decades he conducted himself as a public man in the public arena.
Unity and compromise were important tools for President Lincoln. Historian Reinhard H. Luthin wrote: ‘Lincoln’s skill as a politician was a necessary prerequisite to the formulation of any statesman-like policy concerning the nation during the perilous years 1861-1865….Essentially a practical man, reared in the realism of the frontier and educated in the stern school of Whiggery, Lincoln recognized the necessity of practical politics as a weapon of American statecraft. In being a competent politician, he became a statesman. Had he not displayed his ability as a politician with such signal success, it is doubtful whether he would be regarded today as a statesman.” 131 James M. McPherson wrote of “Lincoln’s skill in holding together a diverse coalition of Republicans and War Democrats, Yankees and border states, abolitionists and slaveholders – which perhaps suggests that Lincoln was the principal reason for Union victory.” 132
Democracy was a necessary weapon in achieving that victory. Contemporary editor James Russell Lowell wrote of Lincoln: “This was, indeed, a true democrat, who grounded himself on the assumption that a democracy can think. ‘Come, let us reason together about this matter,’ has been the tone of all his addresses to the people; and accordingly we have never had a chief magistrate who so won to himself the love and at the same time the judgment of his countrymen. To us, that simple confidence of his in the right-mindedness of his fellow-men is very touching, and its success is as strong an argument as we have ever seen in favor of the theory that men can govern themselves.” 133
Shelby M. Cullom, a Springfield friend of Lincoln who was elected to the “Lincoln seat” in Congress in 1865, compared Lincoln to Moses: “To Lincoln was given but a glimpse of the Promised Land. He lived to see the power of rebellion broken, but was sent to his eternal reward before he saw the authority of the Union established in all rebellious States. He was permitted to go into the mountain, Nebo, and to catch a glimpse of the Promised Land of a restored nation, but his weary feet were not permitted to cross the border that separated it from the Wilderness of Civil War. With his gentle but firm manner he had led Congress to do his bidding. The rising curtain of succeeding years has only served to show the soul of wisdom which that legislative body had before it during those dark days as a guiding angel.” 134
Lincoln used his power to preserve the Union and preserve the Constitution. “Lincoln ascended to the presidency as the ambitious leader of a political party whose sectional constituency placed in question its claim to represent the good of the county as a whole,” wrote Lincoln scholar Herman Belz. “Lincoln’s construction of the Constitution, undertaken through the instrumentality of the executive power, ultimately earned him recognition as the preeminent statesman in the American political tradition…. Resolving the indeterminacy of constitutional meaning that threatened the existence of the nation, Lincoln’s construction of the executive power gave concrete meaning to the promise of perpetuity inherent in the founding of the nation and the establishment of the Constitution.” 135
- William C. Harris, Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency, p. 209.
- Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861, p. 111, 115-117.
- William Baringer, A House Dividing, p.112-113.
- Nelson D. Lankford, Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861, p. 65.
- William A. Link, Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia, p. 145-146.
- David Detzer, The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, p. 172.
- Richard N. Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, p. 31.
- Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 169.
- Donald M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, p. 352.
- Benjamin Perley Poore, Perley’s Reminiscences, Volume II, pp. 64-65.
- Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 170.
More on the Author
In 2010 Michael Burlingame won the Lincoln Prize for his two-volume biography: Abraham Lincoln: A Life. In addition to The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln, he is the editor of nearly a score of books of writings by Lincoln contemporaries. Currently, he is Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois – Springfield. Richard J. Carwardine is the Rhodes Professor of American History at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. In 2010, he became President of Corpus Christi College at Oxford. His books include Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America 1790-1865 and Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. William Lee Miller is Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. In addition to Lincoln’s Virtues and President Lincoln: the Duty of a Statesman, Miller’s books include Arguing about Slavery: the Great Battle in the United States Congress; Religion and the Free Society; The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic; The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding.
Featured Book (continued)
Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).