Abraham Lincoln, Stepfather of Our Country
John J. Dwyer
by John J. Dwyer: Christianity
who embarks on a study of Abraham Lincoln
must first come
to terms with the Lincoln myth. The effort to penetrate the crust
of legend that surrounds Lincoln
is both a formidable and
intimidating task. Lincoln, it seems, requires special considerations
that are denied to other figures.
W. Johannsen, Lincoln,
the South, and Slavery
would not seem a safe time to critique the wisdom, motivations,
and character of Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielbergs reverential
motion picture epic Lincoln fills screens across America.
The public increasingly accepts him as Americas greatest leader.
Academics from the Left and Right compete to bestow
the grandest laurels on the 16th president.
Yet, such a
pursuit is ever more important for a people hurtling forward into
an uncertain future, to learn from past mistakes or merely become
aware they made them. One growing consensus regarding Lincoln seems
credible: He has exerted more influence over the development of
this nation than any other person, including the Founders. If Washington
be the father of our country, surely Lincoln is its stepfather.
will examine the significance of this truly larger-than-life figures
actions regarding three of the many important issues of his time:
1) the Constitution, in particular during the War Between the States,
2) emancipation and blacks, and 3) the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction.
the President of the United States of America clothed in
immense power! Spielbergs Lincoln thunders. The real
Lincoln proved the truth of that claim within days of the April
12, 1861 attack on Fort Sumter. In fact, the attack might have been
avoided if he had not decided to reinforce Sumter. Once it occurred,
he quickly unleashed a series of watershed actions that forever
altered the nature of American government.
On April 13,
he declared the seceding states in a condition of rebellion and
called for 75,000 troops to deal with them a declaration
expressly reserved to Congress by the Constitution: The Congress
shall have the power
To provide for calling forth the Militia
to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel
On April 15,
he called for Congress to return to session but only on July
15, months after Ft. Sumter .
On April 19,
he declared a naval blockade of the South.
On April 21,
he instructed the U.S. Navy to buy five warships an appropriations
act needing congressional approval.
On April 27,
he began the unprecedented act of suspending the constitutional
right of habeas corpus.
On May 3, he
called up thousands more troops for three-year hitches
another act the law did not authorize the president to commit.
At about the
same time, he ordered the Department of Treasury to pay two million
dollars to a New York City company to outfit and arm his army
another appropriations act needing congressional approval.
Each one of
these acts and many more soon to follow violated the
U.S. Constitution. The majority of the U.S. public supported him,
however, as the American people have supported other presidents
since, when they felt the need to break the Constitution for
the public good.
series of moves proved breathtaking in its shrewd efficiency. For
instance, by not calling Congress back into session until July,
Lincoln presented it with a fait accompli upon its return:
a war months old from which there was now no turning back, unless
Lincoln decided such, which he had no intention of doing. Whether
or not Congress would have declared war on the South as had Lincoln,
it now saw no choice but to fight.
Senator Charles Sumner, one of the spearheads of the Radical postwar
Reconstruction and certainly no friend of the South, said: When
Lincoln reinforced Sumter and called for 75,000 men without the
consent of Congress, it was the greatest breach ever made in the
Constitution, and would hereafter give the President the liberty
to declare war whenever he wished, without the consent of Congress.
All this came
from the hand of Lincoln, a man who as a U.S. congressman in 1848
declared: Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the
power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government,
and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable,
a most sacred right a right which we hope and believe is
to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which
the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise
it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize and
make their own so much of the territory as they inhabit.
In his landmark
Real Lincoln, Loyola College economics professor and Lincoln
scholar Thomas DiLorenzo recounted how Lincoln also unlawfully nationalized
the railroads; created three new states without the consent of the
citizens of those states in order to artificially inflate the Republican
Partys electoral vote; ordered Federal troops to interfere
with Northern elections to assure Republican Party victories; deported
Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham for opposing his domestic
policies (especially protectionist tariffs and income taxation)
on the floor of the House of Representatives; confiscated private
property, including firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment;
and effectively gutted the Tenth and Ninth Amendments as well.
Soon, the Lincoln
administration crossed yet another historic line. Without notifying
targeted members of the Maryland legislature of charges, or indeed
possessing any charges, its troops hauled dozens of legislators
it suspected of supporting secession out of their homes in front
of their families in the darkness of night and threw them into prison.
was temporarily located at Fort McHenry, from where Francis Scott
Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner. In fact, Keys
own grandson would be among the host flung into captivity at the
fort. He would write eloquently in American
Bastille of how much the nation had changed in less than
a half century, as he looked upon the U.S. flag flying at the same
location as it was when his grandfather wrote his famous stanzas.
Federal soldiers from other states voted in Marylands November
1861 elections, while local residents had to pass through formations
of bayonet-brandishing Federals to cast their ballots. The Maryland
legislature, prior to its collective jailing by Lincoln, declared:
Resolved, that Maryland implores the President, in the name
of God, to cease this unholy war, at least until Congress assembles;
that Maryland desires and consents to the recognition of the independence
of the Confederate States. The military occupation of Maryland is
unconstitutional, and she protests against it, though the violent
interference with the transit of federal troops is discountenanced,
that the vindication of her rights be left to time and reason, and
that a Convention, under existing circumstances, is inexpedient.
after the war commenced in 1861, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas
corpus, one of the foundational pillars of American and Western
liberty, and preeminent among all provisions of the Bill
of Rights. The right of habeas corpus (Latin for you may have
the body) is sourced in Englands ancient Magna Carta.
It requires a warrant be issued by a legitimate law-enforcement
authority before a person can be arrested, prevents the jailing
of a person without his being charged with a specific crime, and
prohibits indefinite detention of that person without the opportunity
of appearing before a legally convened court for the exercise of
his rights and the hearing of his case.
central place of habeas corpus in American liberty and an armada
of opinion ranging from British jurist William Blackstone to American
Chief Justice John Marshall to President Thomas Jefferson that only
Congress and never the president could suspend habeas
corpus, Lincolns administration did just that in thousands
of cases against the citizens of Federal states. (The power to suspend
habeas corpus when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public
Safety may require it is in Article I, the section of the
Constitution enumerating congressional power.)
arrested Marylander John Merryman without a warrant, jailed him
at Fort McHenry and kept him there without opportunity
for trial or defense. He appealed to the esteemed Supreme Court
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who had already freed his own slaves.
It is difficult
to conceive of the political climate in which Taney received this
plea. Every day, Federal officers hauled citizens of every stripe
politicians, newspaper publishers, attorneys, business owners,
common workers from their homes and places of business for
voicing the slightest criticism of the U.S. government or Lincoln,
flung them into jail, and left them there. Taney had no illusions
but that that fate likely awaited him if he crossed the president.
Yet he ordered the release of the jailed man. Lincoln commanded
his soldiers to refuse. The chief justice then penned Ex Parte
Merryman, an opinion now famous in constitutional law. Delivered
directly to Lincoln at his office, it informed the president that
he, not Merryman, was breaching the law and the Constitution, and
it ordered Merrymans release.
At this point,
Lincoln did issue a warrant of arrest for Taney. Lincoln
apologists deny this action, but contemporary witnesses corroborate
it. Though longtime Lincoln colleague and Federal Marshal of Washington
Ward Hill Lamon declined to serve the warrant, Lincoln had established
that neither Congress, the Supreme Court, nor the Constitution would
stand in the way of his carrying out the actions he deemed best
for the country.
Roger Brooke Taney, 85 years old when President Lincoln issued the
warrant for his arrest and dead before the end of the war, wrote
in Ex Parte Merryman: If the President of the United States
may suspend the writ [of habeas corpus], then the Constitution of
the United States has conferred upon him more regal and absolute
power over the liberty of the citizen than the people of England
have thought it safe to entrust to the crown a power which
the Queen of England cannot exercise to this day, and which could
not have been lawfully exercised by the sovereign even in the reign
of Charles the First.
That king got
beheaded for his dictatorial actions.
administration continued to express great concern over Northerners
who did not exhibit what it considered sufficient loyalty, or sufficiently
enthusiastic loyalty, to the United States and its war effort. After
suspending habeas corpus, the president and his lieutenants shut
down over 300 Northern newspapers during the struggle, throwing
many of their editors and publishers in jail or prison without trials
and often without charges. Approximately 13,000 other Northern citizens
met the same fate.
justification: Measures, however unconstitutional, might become
lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution,
through the preservation of the nation.
own words on the issue of African-American slavery would shock anyone
who accepts the popular myth that Lincoln was the Great Emancipator.
While he never uttered a word against the Illinois law that made
it a crime for blacks to settle in his home state, he did declare,
in Springfield, on July 17, 1858: What I would desire most
would be the separation of the white and black races.
famed 1858 Illinois Senate debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln
offered eloquent criticism of American slavery, while demonstrating
how different his anti-slavery views were from those of abolitionists
who sought not only freedom, but political and social equality,
politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not
admit of this. I will say that I am not nor ever have been in
favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality
of the white and black races, that I am not nor have ever been
in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying
them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. And
I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference
between the white and black races which I believe will forever
forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political
equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do
remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior.
And I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior
position assigned to the white race.
Did his views
change later, as president? In 1862, he declared: My paramount
object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to
save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing
any slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all
the slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some
and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
Yet, he freed
the slaves the following year. Evidence abounds, from Lincolns
own words as well as his actions, that something besides a desire
to end African-American bondage fueled his historic Emancipation
Proclamation. U.S. Senate Republicans launched a revolt against
Lincoln in mid-December 1862, just before he signed the proclamation
Lincolns old friend, Illinois Representative Orville Browning,
and others, the senators demanded the president conduct a more resolute
war effort, including emancipating all African-American slaves in
America. They apparently threatened to bring down his administration
diary of December 31, 1862 recorded that Judge Benjamin Franklin
Thomas of the Massachusetts Supreme Court told the regretful Browning:
The President was fatally bent upon his course, saying that
if he should refuse to issue his proclamation there would be a rebellion
in the north, and that a dictator would be placed over his head
within the week.
Radical Republican-dominated effort evidently included emancipation
as a method of war that would torpedo the Souths economy and
ability to defend itself. A slave uprising lay within the sphere
of this projection. A howling chorus of protest arose to the proclamation
not only from the South, but from many of Lincolns opponents
in the North, as well as in Europe. Horatio Seymour, soon-to-be
Democratic governor of New York, called the scheme a proposal
for the butchery of [white Southern] women and children, for scenes
of lust and rapine, arson and murder, unparalleled in the history
of the world.
Southern slaves and their owners proved superior to such an eventuality.
But Lincoln himself, when told the Constitution gave individual
states and not the national government jurisdiction over slavery,
claimed emancipation as a war powers act that he as commander in
chief could employ for military purposes. Indeed, he eliminated
from an early draft of the decree a call for a violent uprising
Emancipation Proclamation quelled the Senate revolt. But his lackluster
feelings for it resurfaced when he eschewed the urgings of much
of his Cabinet, including Seward, Chase, Blair, and Bates, and confined
his decree to those slaves in Confederate-controlled territory.
That is, he freed none of the slaves over which he had control when
he had the opportunity.
the rest of the article
J. Dwyer [send him mail]
as Adjunct Professor of History at Southern Nazarene University
and Oklahoma City Community College. He is former chairman of history
at Coram Deo Academy near Dallas, Texas. He is author of the historical
War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War. His
website includes a five-minute preview video about the book.
He is also the author of the historical novels Stonewall
E. Lee, and the former editor and publisher of The Dallas/Fort
Worth Heritage newspaper. He is currently working on the comprehensive
history The Oklahomans: The Story of Oklahoma and Its People.
© 2012 The New American