Monthly Archives: April 2013

Lincoln author Richard Carwardine to speak at LMU commencement

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.

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Lincoln’s predecessor

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.

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Lincoln, law, and necessity

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.

Adalbert Volck depicted Lincoln as Don Quixote with his foot on the Constitution in this 1861 etching. Image from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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.

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Randall Kennedy: Lincoln was a racial “pessimist”

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.”

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Historic courthouse on Lincoln’s circuit gets helping hand from kids

As an Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln spent quite a bit of time on the Eighth Judicial Circuit.  One of the courthouses where he practiced was a small Greek Revival building in the town of Mount Pulaski; it’s become a state historic site, but has fallen on hard times.  A local third-grade class has started a fundraising effort to contribute to the building’s upkeep, and donations have been coming in from as far away as Germany.

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Lincoln looking south from Peoria

By Michael Lynch

Although not as popular as some of his other works, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, IL—delivered over the course of some three hours on October 16, 1854—is one of his more important public addresses.  The speech combines history, reason, and moral appeal in an attack on the extension of slavery.  Lincoln was no abolitionist—he did not call for the immediate eradication of slavery in states where it had always existed—but he considered its extension north of the Missouri Compromise line to be both a moral and a political wrong.  The compromise had held for more than thirty years before Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned it in 1854 by permitting slavery in northern territories whose populations voted to permit the institution.

The Peoria speech contains one of my favorite passages from the entire Lincoln corpus:

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

It’s a surprisingly charitable statement for a speech devoted to a divisive political issue, especially since Lincoln believed the stakes in the debate over slavery in the territories to be incredibly high.

Abraham Lincoln in 1854. Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in the same speech he denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and its spread as an existential threat to American principles which “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”  Since Lincoln saw the slave question in such stark and consequential terms, the natural thing to do would have been to demonize those who upheld the institution and its extension.  He not only refrained from doing so, but asserted that only historical circumstances accounted for the difference of opinion.

Perhaps one of the reasons for his refusal to castigate the South over the slave issue was the fact that he believed it such a difficult problem to solve.  Lincoln freely admitted that he couldn’t prescribe a remedy for slavery.  He told the Peoria audience that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.”  He dismissed the prospect of granting them social and political equality, stating that his “own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”   Lincoln did believe “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.”

To modern ears, Lincoln’s desire to see the freedmen sent out of the country and his unwillingness make them his equals make him seem woefully backward.  But his conviction that the slave question had no easy answers was one of the reasons he was reluctant to condemn those who disagreed with him about it.  Faced with the most divisive, emotive political issue of his time, Lincoln did not assume that individuals on the other side of it were his moral inferiors.  Even as he demonized the institution of slavery, he humanized those who disagreed with him about it.  This willingness to distinguish between issues and their proponents would serve him well when he presided over a nation at war, a war that gave him the opportunity to enact the sweeping solution to the slavery problem from which he shrank in 1854.

For anyone trying to evaluate Lincoln as a moral role model, the Peoria speech shows him at both his worst and best.  His remarks about political and social equality between whites and blacks revealed him to be a man of his time with all the attendant prejudices.  On the other hand, the empathy he expressed toward the South seems remarkably enlightened by any standard of political rhetoric.  Most modern Americans have long since outpaced Lincoln in terms of our beliefs about race, but in terms of knowing how to handle emotive political issues it seems we haven’t caught up with him yet.  He knew that you could attack people’s opinions without attacking the people themselves.  That’s a lesson we could learn today, when political differences remain as heated as they were in Lincoln’s day.

—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.

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