Arts & Culture / Mosaic / September 29, 2010

Studying Lincoln’s use of executive power

It is a popular belief that Abraham Lincoln is the greatest American president, but he was not without his critics. Some accused Lincoln of “executive usurpation” for expanding the powers of the Executive office during the Civil War, one of the topics of the fall Lincoln lecture sponsored by the Lincoln Studies Center.

Co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center Rodney Davis acknowledged the Center’s Board of the Advisers before introducing the speaker of the “Lincoln and Executive Power” lecture, Jennifer Weber. Weber is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and a member of the board. She was late to the field of history and spent a number of years in journalism before publishing Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North and becoming author of a children’s book based on the battle of Gettysburg.

Weber spoke about Lincoln’s use of—sometimes thought as abuse of—power compared to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Lincoln first entered office in March of 1861, the executive branch was small and limited but grew in employment and power when he left. Critics accused him of being a tyrant for ignoring a decision by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and for the suspension of habeas corpus. Other presidents during times of war cited Lincoln as a precedent and justification for enlarging their presidential power.

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln raised armies and waged war, which the Constitution allows only Congress to do. Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus—the most dramatic of his actions to some critics. Weber pointed out that in Article 1 of the Constitution, the Founders used habeas corpus in the passive voice, which caused its intent of who could suspend it to be confusing. The passage states, “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Weber took the time to warn students not to use the passive voice.

In July of 1961, Lincoln addressed his critics before Congress,,” arguing that in a state of rebellion, he was willing to do anything he thought was right. Weber said Lincoln “opposed any compromise and very rarely second-guessed himself.” However, some of his actions have left blemishes on his record.

In one famous case, Clement Vallandigham, a former Ohio Congressman, publically spoke against Lincoln’s administration and his actions. Vallandigham was arrested, tried in military court and sentenced to spend time in military prison, which put Lincoln in a difficult situation. However, Weber said evidence suggests that Lincoln was rational in his responses of suspending habeas corpus as his level of response was proportional to the situation and really only happened in the border states.

“Lincoln was trying to focus on the war and did not seek responsibility that did not have direct impact on the field,” Weber said.

Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation — his most admired act — as a legal argument void of his usual ornate language, something which was done out of military necessity, and which he was able to do as Commander in Chief. As Lincoln’s decisions to expand his power were incremental; the legal precedent which allowed him to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation was the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except in cases of punishment. According to Weber, Lincoln was a raging moderate (“flaming,” added a board member) by nature (Weber, in response to that added remark, said she had to stop and think of Lincoln in a pink, feather boa).

One of the most extreme measures taken during the Civil War — the draft — did not have Lincoln’s involvement as it was Congress who created The Conscription Act and also created a new government agency, the Provost Marshal General Bureau. Before this new agency, the largest federal department at that time was the U.S. Postal Service. Those in the Provost Marshal General Bureau collected personal information and could force people against their will into the army.

Lincoln was not over-reaching or over-reacting when exercising his presidential power as compared to presidents Wilson and FDR. According to Weber, Lincoln faced an existential crisis while Wilson and FDR both committed gross violations of civil liberties as war-time presidents. Wilson imprisoned communists who dissented because of their political inclinations and FDR targeted the Japanese to be put into internment camps without just cause.

Although some extreme cases may have blemished Lincoln’s record, Lincoln’s incremental and rational decisions to expand his Executive powers ended the Civil War. Weber said, “That was the only job in the first couple years of the war: to save the Union.” And Lincoln did just that.

Sheena Leano


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