Lincoln and the Imperial Presidency

By Dr. Charles M. Hubbard

In 1973 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. first articulated the term “Imperial Presidency” to characterize the American presidents. The book, simply entitled The Imperial Presidency, chronicles the consistent growth of presidential power in the United States. Schlesinger associates the ever-increasing power of the American president with the conduct of war. The gradual accumulation of power, in Schlesinger’s view, is directly connected to threats to national security. Schlesinger’s book is certainly a response to the perceived abuses of presidential power by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. He was concerned that power had accumulated in the executive branch to allow presidents to respond unilaterally to threats to the nation’s security, at the expense of the legislative branch.

The power to limit any particular president is vested in the American electorate. It is the power of the recall, through the election process every four years, which provides the ultimate restraint on presidential power.

However, the struggle between the legislative and the executive branches for power continues. The need to focus and centralize authority in times of national emergency was recognized by the founders and appropriate provisions are included in the Constitution. Over the years, Congress has been willing to relinquish war powers to the executive branch. Through a variety of maneuvers American presidents have usurped these powers to the extent that the American president is the most powerful person in the world. [i]

Recent events have placed the president in a position to apply unilaterally his presidential authority to make war without consultation with Congress as the founders had originally intended. The threat of violence against Americans has once again raised the question of presidential power and responsibility in the national consciousness. Americans and their elected representatives are willing to surrender personal liberties and limited government power in the face of foreign threats. James Madison may have stated it best when he wrote to Thomas Jefferson that “perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”[ii]  The concept of presidential war powers, and more particularly their application in times of emergency, arguably originated with Abraham Lincoln.

Was Abraham Lincoln the first of the Imperial Presidents? He certainly used his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to expand the parameters of the war powers to include intervention into areas traditionally reserved for civilian authorities. Lincoln believed that it was his sworn duty to preserve and protect the Constitution. In that capacity he assumed the authority that the president “shall take Care that the laws be faithfully executed.”  In the face of the rebellion and insurrection Lincoln believed that he was well within his constitutional authority to suppress the rebellion and protect free government. He argued that if the established constitutionally elected government was to survive he had “no choice but to call out the war power.”[iii] Congress eventually approved Lincoln’s unprecedented actions to confront the emergency caused by secession and Civil War.

Many of Lincoln’s contemporaries both inside and outside government accused him of abusing his presidential authority and even called him “the new dictator.” Lincoln found it necessary to call forth militia volunteers and authorize purchases of equipment and supplies to support them. As a military necessity Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus, the most fundamental constitutional protection of civil liberties. He declared a blockade of southern ports in violation of international law that threatened war with the European powers. He did all this and more without consulting Congress and justified his actions as emergency war powers. Lincoln expected that his unprecedented application of presidential power would be returned to Congress after the emergency. Undoubtedly, Lincoln (and most Americans) believed the rebellion would soon be reduced and the appropriate constitutional checks and balances reaffirmed. As events developed, Lincoln would increase rather than reduce his presidential authority to suppress political dissent, reorganize the military, and issue proclamations affecting the civilian population. Certainly, the most dramatic and far-reaching proclamation issued as a necessity of war was the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln used his presidential powers to control the reconstruction process, or at least substantially influence, through the use of the military, the restoration of national authority in the occupied territories.

It was necessary for Lincoln to take unprecedented actions and at best expand the constitutional authority as president to suppress the rebellion and reunite the country. Abraham Lincoln was not the first of the Imperial Presidents, but he certainly was an early participant in an evolutionary process. The challenge for American democracy going forward is to maintain the balance between presidential and congressional power that the founders intended in the Constitution. The linchpin of American government is the executive, and mechanisms must emerge to control and restrain presidential power. At the same time, Americans cannot afford to significantly encumber or restrict the president’s ability to protect the country against extraordinary and unprecedented threats. As Schlesinger wrote in 1973, “American democracy must discover a middle ground between making the president Caesar and making him a puppet. The problem is to devise means of reconciling a strong and purposeful presidency with equally strong and purposeful forms of Democratic control.”[iv] Ultimately, the office will be defined by the character, integrity and judgment of the people selected for public service. We must have a president that sustains the Constitution and is sustained by the Constitution.

History has proved that American democracy had nothing to fear from the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed it is doubtful that without his leadership and determination to preserve “government of the people, by the people and for the people,”[v]the country and the world would be a very different place. Americans should embrace a powerful presidency within the parameters of the Constitution.

—Charles Hubbard is Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy


[i] Schlesinger, Arthur M. , The Imperial Presidency, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973 Boston.

[ii] Madison to Jefferson, May 13,1798.

[iii] Lincoln’s message to Congress, July 4, 1861

[iv] Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency. Foreword X

[v] Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, November 19, 1863

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