American Pioneer Music has released a new album with some very old material. It’s a collection of campaign songs from the 1864 presidential election, with the original—and in some cases offensive—lyrics left intact. Check out the album’s website.
In his new book Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership, Kenneth Walsh examines the challenges facing leaders whose exalted position cuts them off from the people who elect them. You can get a taste of his ideas by reading his column on the subject.
One of Lincoln’s solutions to this problem of presidential isolation was to use the crowds of petitioners and visitors who flooded the White House to get a sense of popular opinion. Here is how he explained it to Charles Halpine in 1863:
Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn as if waiting to be shaved in a barber’s shop. Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return. I tell you, Major, that I call these receptions my public-opinion baths; for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way, and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.
Historical autograph dealer Nathan Raab muses on the current Lincoln craze in a piece for Forbes. ”The 16th President, widely admired for so long, is now coming to us via so many compelling and varied interpretations, both popular and scholarly, that it seems to pervade all aspects of our culture,” he writes. ”We have loved him for a long time, but somehow this feels different.”
Richard Carwardine, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, will deliver the commencement address at LMU’s graduation on May 4. Carwardine is a specialist in American history whose book Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power won the Lincoln Prize in 2004. His previous positions include Rhodes Professor of American History at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford and Professor of American History at the University of Sheffield.
Commencement ceremonies begin at 11:00 A.M. at the Tex Turner Arena on the Harrogate campus.
The National Constitution Center’s blog recently featured a concise overview of James Buchanan’s controversial political career:
In his inaugural address, Buchanan called the territorial issue of slavery “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” He had been tipped off about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, which came shortly after the inauguration. Buchanan supported the theory that states and territories have a right to determine if they would allow slavery. (There were also reports Buchanan may have influenced the court’s ruling.) The Dred Scott decision angered and solidified Buchanan’s Republican opponents, and it drove a wedge into the Democratic Party. The country also went into an economic recession as the Civil War approached.
By Michael Lynch
I asked the students in my introductory Lincoln course to write an essay on Lincoln’s use of presidential power. I told them to decide whether Lincoln abused his authority and overstepped the Constitution, whether he was too timid, or whether he used his power judiciously, and to defend their answer in a short paper.
Although I assured the class that there was no “right” answer to the question, and that they were free to excoriate Lincoln as harshly as they wanted, the results came back overwhelmingly in his favor. Of some two dozen students, only three found his use of power excessive. The rest of the class generally agreed that Lincoln acted properly, given the circumstances he faced.
Interestingly, though, the two groups defended their positions quite differently. The students who argued that Lincoln assumed too much presidential power cited specific passages of the Constitution to make their case. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, in particular, came in for criticism. As these students noted, the Constitution permits such an act “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it,” but this passage is found in the article dealing with powers of Congress. The legality of a presidential suspension of habeas corpus while the legislature was out of session was therefore a matter of controversy during the Civil War, and it remains so today.
The students who defended Lincoln, by and large, did not try to cite law and precedent to demonstrate that his actions were legal. Instead, they argued from necessity. Rebellion on the scale of the Civil War was something no other president had faced, and most students felt he had no choice but to act as he did in order to preserve the Union.
A few of the students who defended Lincoln did find him a bit too hesitant in one respect; they wished he had issued his emancipation decree sooner. But they also noted that their preferences in timing weren’t necessarily practical, and agreed that Lincoln had good reasons for waiting as long as he did.
I found it interesting that the two groups of students differed in their approaches, because Lincoln himself used both law and necessity in defending his more controversial policies. Referring to his suspension of habeas corpus in a message to Congress in 1861, he noted that “the attention of the country has been called to the proposition that one who is sworn to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ should not himself violate them.” At the same time, however, he observed that all the Constitution’s provisions were essentially going unenforced “in nearly one-third of the States.” Was it acceptable for “all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken, if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law, would tend to preserve it?”
In any case, Lincoln continued, his suspension of habeas corpus was not a case of “disregarding the law.” He believed he had acted within the limits established by the Constitution. After all, that document permits habeas corpus to be suspended in a case of rebellion, and while it does not explicitly permit the executive branch to exercise this power, neither does it explicitly forbid it. Besides, since “the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it cannot be believed the framers of the instrument intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together; the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.”
Lincoln thus hedged his rhetorical bets in his message to Congress. He made a case for the constitutionality of his actions, and if that failed to convince his critics, he asked whether they preferred to see one law stretched and the Constitution saved or watch the whole Constitution tossed aside by the rebellion while the Union’s hands remained tied.
If my students’ essays are any indication, many modern Americans will support leaders who use extraordinary means so long as they believe the ends are worthwhile.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.
Randall Kennedy, who teaches law at Harvard, is profiled in the new issue of the university’s magazine. Kennedy claims that approaches to race fall into two groups, the pessimists and the optimists, and includes Lincoln among the former:
“The pessimistic school believes that ‘We shall not overcome’—racial animus and prejudice are so deeply embedded that they will never go away. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Malcolm X fell into the pessimistic camp. The optimists, in contrast, feel that, notwithstanding the depth and horror of oppression, there are resources in American society that, deployed intelligently, will allow us to overcome. I put myself in that camp, along with Frederick Douglass, the great [nineteenth-century abolitionist] Wendell Phillips [A.B. 1831, LL.B. 1833], and Martin Luther King. I hope I don’t turn away from the horror, but also hope I try to be attentive to the real fact of change in American life.”