Tag Archives: Presidency

Chris DeRose on Lincoln and his predecessors

In The Presidents’ War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them, Chris DeRose examines how Lincoln’s predecessors reacted to the secession crisis.  Roll Call recently featured a very favorable review of the book:

These men had some triumphs. Van Buren built a national party, Tyler annexed Texas, Fillmore steered the Compromise of 1850 to passage — successes that yielded mixed results and sometimes violent reactions.
But they were, for the most part, frittering around the edges of an impending national catastrophe, not because they couldn’t see it, but because they could. Rather than confront it, they chose to trim, or avert their gaze.
The story of the six presidents really begins when the sixth arrives in the capital to confront a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington.”
And it is here where DeRose’s well-seeded narrative bears fruit. For we now know these men, from their deeds and words — and when they challenge Lincoln’s policies, their narrow interests and lack of vision quickly become obvious.
They deride Lincoln as a sectional man, but he is the only one among them who seems to understand the nation they have all governed.
Hidebound by pieties of the past, none can fully see their way clear to the new birth of freedom Lincoln promises, not just for enslaved blacks, but for the entire United States and all of humanity.
“The former presidents were living in a world they did not recognize,” DeRose writes.

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The planter and the railsplitter

By Michael Lynch

Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other.  Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.

Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated.  Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.

Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism.  He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army.  Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s.  If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.

“Abraham Lincoln, the Martyr, Victorious,” by John Sartain. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-pga-03258).

The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion.  Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one.  But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft.  When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.

And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783.  Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15.  Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”  The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.

Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could.  What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose.  When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.”  Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered.  “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.”  At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked.  At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.

Michael Lynch is a research fellow of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy and teaches history at Lincoln Memorial University.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee, blogs about historical topics at Past in the Present, and is currently working on a book about the Revolutionary War in the South.

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2013 McMurtry Lecture by Ron Soodalter now online

If you didn’t get to hear Ron Soodalter deliver this year’s R. Gerald McMurtry Memorial Lecture, you can now read a copy by clicking here.  Previous lectures are also available to read at the Lincoln Institute’s website.

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The rise and fall of presidential reputations

A graphic which just appeared in The New York Times charts variations in presidential popularity over the years.  Lincoln’s popularity has remained consistently high, with a noticeable upswing in the past few years.

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Obama should take the lead like Lincoln, says Pinsker

In USA Today, historian Matthew Pinsker argues that by deferring to Congress on Syria, Obama has neglected the precedent set by Lincoln.  “Lincoln demonstrated that war powers work best when the president, and not Congress, takes the lead,” he writes.  “While Congress holds the authority to declare war, it is the president as commander in chief who must make war.”

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The isolation of the presidency

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.

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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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Weber: Lincoln “tended not to overreach” when it came to extraordinary measures

Jennifer L. Weber has written a concise analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s expansion of presidential power for the New York Times Civil War blog. She argues that Lincoln’s infringement of civil liberties was both proportional to the situation and modest in comparison with actions taken by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt:

Lincoln’s reputation is less marred because his accrual of power was equal to the threat facing the nation. His authority grew incrementally and his administration tended not to overreach. The obvious exceptions are a handful of high-profile cases involving politicians and newspapermen. Still, we should keep some perspective. [Mark] Neely concludes that most of the arrests and detainments involved people who were actually breaking the law, not those merely speaking out against the government.

By contrast, Wilson’s administration systematically pursued leftists, immigrants and political dissidents not because of their actions but because of their political beliefs. Roosevelt incarcerated an entire class of people based on their ethnicity. Like Wilson, Roosevelt’s action was methodical.

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Lincoln as a “constitutional leader”

Steven B. Smith assesses Lincoln’s presidency as a successful example of constitutional leadership operating within prescribed limits.  “As Lincoln understood,” he writes, “the most essential feature of constitutional leadership is self-restraint.”

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