Abraham Lincoln has been profiled a lot lately with books and a movie previewing the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The 1861-1865 period of our history was tumultuous to say the least. With the Civil War looming, Lincoln felt it necessary to take extraordinary actions exceeding the law and the Constitution. Acting almost as judge, jury and interpreter of the words of our forefathers, he embarked on arguably the most dramatic four years in our country’s history.
As they did then and now, questions abound (answered by the Civil War) as to whether Lincoln, or any president as commander-in-chief, can circumvent a governing document such as the Constitution and operate the nation as a virtual dictator.
In the most notable case in point, and because of his zeal to help shorten the Civil War, Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. But, was he operating within the parameters of his constitutional prerogative? Probably, but he stretched his authority and interpretations to a dangerous point.
With this historic judgment and others, Lincoln created an almost imaginary fine line between overstepping his control and demonstrating proper exercise of power. The magnitude of the man made critical decisions of this nature easier to accept. Given the same circumstances, could either James Buchanan (president before Lincoln) or Andrew Johnson (after) have gotten away with such change? Not likely.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., whose name was associated with at least four presidents, cited in The Imperial Presidency (1973) from Dean Sprague in Freedom Under Lincoln (1965), “In his twelve weeks of executive grace (April to July, 1861), Lincoln ignored one law and constitutional provision after another. He assembled the militia, enlarged the Army and the Navy beyond their authorized strength, called out volunteers for three years’ service, spent public money without congressional appropriation, suspended habeas corpus, arrested people “represented” as involved in “disloyal” practices and instituted a naval blockade of the Confederacy,” actions which he told Congress may not have been legal but were necessary by popular demand and public necessity.
Lincoln believed that an instrument of his own construction to free the slaves would command easier political and public acceptance. He exercised wide powers independently of Congress throughout the war. Schlesinger Jr. added “. . .He asserted the right to proclaim martial law behind the lines, to arrest people without warrant, to seize property, to suppress newspapers, to prevent the use of the post office for “treasonable” correspondence and to take these actions without a declaration of war by Congress.
The president developed his own insight on the duties and privileges of the commander-in-chief and how it connected him to the Constitution. He possibly envisioned the latter document being different in war than in peace. “It was not in its application in all respects the same in cases of rebillion or invasion. . .as it is in times of profound peace and public security,” said Schlesinger, Jr.
Called the “Great Emancipator” and the “Aggrandizer,” Lincoln’s qualities and abilities were not realized until long after the wounds of war had healed. Although he was popular with soldiers from both the north and south, there was constant criticism aimed at the president during the furor over the unconstitutionality of the document that “freed” the slaves. Remember, Lincoln gained the presidency via the electoral college “presumably” because of an overwhelming popular vote of the people..