Lincoln’s Constitutional Leadership

November 29th, 2012

On Tuesday, we highlighted WSPWH editor Leon R. Kass’s close reading of the Gettysburg Address as a good way to take advantage of enthusiasm over Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie and teach students about our nation’s 16th president. 

To complement Kass’s reading, today we bring you another article on Lincoln: Steven B. Smith’s recent essay in National Affairs on “Lincoln’s Constitutional Leadership.” Like Kass, Smith emphasizes Lincoln’s understanding of political equality as a defining characteristic of his presidency. But more than that, Smith notes that part of Lincoln’s genius was in defending this founding ideal while also following and obeying the political order the founders created.

As Smith explains, in his Lyceum Address, given in 1838 and titled “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” Lincoln divides political actors into two kinds: “the heroic creators of new orders—the Alexanders, Caesars, and Napoleons—and the non-heroic, ordinary sorts. It is clear that [Lincoln] believed the American founders, like Washington and Jefferson, belonged to the first sort.”

Smith continues:

But Lincoln went further. He argued that preserving and maintaining institutions may be more difficult than founding them. The task of the constitutional statesman is precisely to check and restrain the ambition of those potential leaders and conquerors that Lincoln designates as descending from the lion and the eagle. This task seems peculiarly self-effacing and humble in contrast with the tasks of the political founders, yet it is also more difficult — as it requires channeling great ambition in the direction of preservation rather than of change, where such ambition is naturally inclined to go. […]

Simply preserving a tradition, however, is not enough. It is necessary also to grasp what one seeks to preserve. Traditions are not self-sustaining; people must understand what they wish to keep, lest their desire to preserve become an empty shell. The constitutional leader will therefore stress an appreciation not just for preservation over change, but for the central principles — the organizing concepts and categories — of constitutional government. A recourse to first principles must be a priority for leaders, especially at times when those principles are in danger of becoming confused or incoherent.

But what are these principles? On what does constitutional government ultimately rest? Is it divided government, the separation of powers, the rule of law, judicial review, property rights, or freedom of speech? For Lincoln, the answer was clear. It meant a return to the principle of equality as the pole star of American constitutional government.

For Lincoln, the concept of equality was not simply an abstract idea plucked out of thin air. It was embodied in a central clause of the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln more than anyone else elevated to core status in the American experiment in self-government. When we think of the Declaration today, we do so in terms that Lincoln established. “I have never had a feeling politically,” he declared in a speech in Philadelphia on his way to the White House in 1861, “that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” This was not just a dutiful nod to the founders on the occasion of a stop at Independence Hall. It cut to the very heart of Lincoln’s leadership.

In applying the founding concept of liberty, Smith notes, Lincoln showed extraordinary Constitutional deference:

Lincoln even applied this doctrine of constitutional self-restraint to his views of presidential power. To be sure, Lincoln made extraordinary use of his powers during wartime — suspending the writ of habeas corpus, shutting down opposition newspapers, arresting anti-war agitators, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, among other acts, all of which seemed to go well beyond the limited powers of a constitutional executive. Lincoln defended these decisions on the grounds of “military necessity.” These were measures he deemed essential to saving the Union, and as commander in chief, he was vested with the authority to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. The question, of course, is who is to judge the necessity? Were Lincoln’s actions a part of his constitutional office, or were they a foray into Machiavellianism? Does invoking the necessity doctrine not invest the president with the powers of a dictator?

But Lincoln sought to ground his extraordinary actions in necessity precisely to avoid making the exception a rule. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he knew that he was doing something deeply radical. Until that time, the war had been presented as an effort to restore the Union as it was. Now its goal seemed to be redirected toward the cause of emancipation. Lincoln knew he was treading on thin ice, which is why he cautiously defended his act as an instance of “military necessity.” In a letter to James Conkling, he invoked his powers as commander in chief to seize enemy property when needed. If slaves are regarded as property, is it not within legitimate constitutional authority to liberate that property when doing so hurts the enemy? “I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently?” Lincoln asked rhetorically. What he did, he did to strengthen cause of the Union and hasten the end of the war.

Lincoln knew he was vulnerable to criticism from multiple angles — from those who might be willing to wage war to defend the Union but would balk at the idea of a war to emancipate slaves, as well as from those who believed that emancipation must be the ultimate goal. And he described his motives as entirely consistent with those of the former camp, not of the latter. When his own Treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, argued that the president was not doing enough to end slavery and that the Emancipation Proclamation was not nearly sufficient, Lincoln replied in a letter on September 2, 1863:

The original proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities. Nor does that necessity apply to them now any more than it did then. If I take the step [toward complete emancipation] must I not do so, without the argument of military necessity, and so, without any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient and morally right? Would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism?

In other words, Lincoln was aware of the possibility of — and refused to go down the path toward — a Machiavellian use of power, even in the service of a just cause.

A second case of Lincoln’s exercise of constitutional restraint concerned the principle of election. As late as the summer of 1864, Lincoln fully expected to be a one-term president, and even many within his own party were urging another candidate. But should the election be postponed as some were proposing, given the exigencies of the ongoing war? Although an election would put the war effort at risk just when victory seemed within reach, Lincoln was absolutely opposed to delaying the election. Suspending elections was unthinkable, even if Lincoln’s defeat and perhaps the demise of the Union were easily imaginable consequences of carrying on with the vote. “This morning, as for some days past,” Lincoln wrote in a memorandum, “it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”

To his infinite credit, Lincoln realized that constitutional government should not be sacrificed even if the cost might be the end of constitutional government. For constitutional leadership, the ends do not justify the means.

Take a look at Steven Smith’s entire article on “Lincoln’s Constitutional Leadership.”

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