Lincoln, Abraham (1809–1865)

In rankings of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is often listed as the greatest President of all time. The rationale for that title has to do with his leadership at difficult times, particularly leadership during the bloodiest war ever fought in theAmericas, theAmerican Civil War. Much is made of the fact that the Civil War was about holding the American nation together, or as Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, ‘‘testing whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.’’What ismissed in the nationalismobservation, however, is that the war was fought for principle in Lincoln’s mind, not just for nationalism. The ‘‘so conceived and so dedicated’’ line has to do with human rights, and particularly with Lincoln’s reference to ‘‘liberty’’ and the aspiration that ‘‘all men are created equal.’’ In other words, what stands behind the war for nationalismis human rights.And it is the dedication to human rights, above all else, that earns Lincoln’s high ranking in the roster of American presidents.

Until 1858, Lincoln had been a little known person outside of his region of Illinois. Lincoln was born in rural Hardin County, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809, the son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. The family lived in poverty as his father scraped out a living as a farmer. He moved to Illinois as a young man and there married Mary Todd on November 4, 1842. They had four sons, although only one lived to adulthood. Lincoln had practiced law in Springfield and had served two terms in the U.S. Congress from 1847–1851, where he had opposed the expansion of slavery beyond the state where it was then legal. This position had been significant because of the acquisition of the American Southwest in the Mexican War and the rapid westward expansion that resulted. Eventually, Lincoln believed, the obvious contradictions between slavery and the ideals of the Constitution would lead to emancipation, but he did not advocate abolition of slavery at that time.

Lincoln–Douglas Debates

In 1858, Lincoln ran against the nationally known incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas for a senate seat in Illinois. In accepting his nomination for that seat, Lincoln delivered his famous ‘‘house divided’’ speech in which he argued that the nation could not continue to exist ‘‘half slave and half free.’’ In July 1858, Lincoln proposed that the two candidates engage in a series of formal debates, a proposal that Douglas reluctantly accepted. During that summer, the two men encountered one another in seven debates. The intellectual discussion of slavery that resulted expanded the national debate about slavery beyond any public discussion up to that point. Lincoln forced Douglas to engage the apparent contradiction between slavery and a free society. The infamous Dred Scott decision had been handed down by the Supreme Court only the year before and had declared that slaves were not citizens and therefore could not sue for freedom. When challenged to define his position on that case, Douglas did not disavow the decision but then added that ‘‘slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere unless it is supported by local police regulations.’’ His position accepted the constitutional force of Dred Scott, but suggested that if the ruling was unpopular, it should not be enforced. Lincoln saw the slavery issue as a core moral issue rather than as a practical political problem: ‘‘it is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong throughout the world.’’ In the debates, Lincoln tried to balance the moral issue and his antislavery beliefs with the practical problem of race adjustment that would result from the end of slavery. While Douglas argued for the status quo, Lincoln forced the debates to raise the discussion on slavery to a new level. Lincoln’s party actually won more votes than did Douglas’s party, but senators were then selected by the state legislatures. Because of gerrymandered districts, Douglas won reelection to his seat. Lincoln’s performance in the debates was widely covered and well reported in the national press. The debates made him politically prominent in the Northern free states and catapulted him into leadership within the Republican party.

Lincoln won the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency in 1860 and was elected to the presidency on an abolitionist platform. He won an election that showed the deep divisions of the nation on the slavery issue, and his election spurred action in southern states that led to their seceding from the union. Lincoln believed it his duty to preserve the union, and the Civil War broke out.

Suspension of Habeas Corpus

Although his commitment to human rights was the basis of his election, the beginning of the Civil War challenged his commitment to civil liberties. After the war began, Lincoln claimed emergency powers and suspended the right of citizens to request a writ of habeas corpus after their arrests. This right, requiring that a judge determine the legality of an imprisonment, was seen by Lincoln as a threat to the security of the nation during the early days of the war. He claimed the prerogative to suspend the writ because of the crisis. The military was free to arrest and detain anyone suspected of assisting the confederates indefinitely. Lincoln’s action was immediately controversial and has caused debate among constitutional scholars ever since. Lincoln offered several justifications for suspending habeas corpus. First, he argued that a ‘‘doctrine of necessity,’’ predicated on his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, allowed him to take a ‘‘big picture’’ view of executive authority. Just as sometimes limbs must be amputated to preserve life, presidents may be forced to violate the letter of the Constitution to save it over the long run. Second, he made more formal constitutional claims for his actions. The President, he noted, has the duty to ‘‘faithfully execute’’ the nation’s laws. Disloyal citizens could preclude such faithful law enforcement, and thus, to serve a larger purpose, he could suspend their right to habeas corpus. Also, the commander-in-chief power allowed him, in time of war, ‘‘to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.’’

In May 1861, a union general named George Cadwalader ordered the arrest of a John Merryman for being ‘‘an active secessionist sympathizer.’’ Merryman was held in a military prison by order of Cadwalader. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who had administrative supervision over the prison, asked for Cadwalader to allow him to judge the legality of Merryman’s detention. Cadwalader cited Lincoln’s orders and refused Taney’s request. Taney cited Cadwalader for contempt of court, but Union soldiers refused to allow the order to be served. Subsequently, Taney, the man who had also authored the Dred Scott decisions, wrote of his outrage in the Ex parte Merryman opinion.

In his opinion, Taney addressed Lincoln’s arguments for expanded executive authority, directly disputing Lincoln’s claim that the faithful execution of law justified the suspension of habeas corpus. That power, Taney wrote, did not permit him to ‘‘execute them himself, or through agents or officers, civil or military.’’ Rather, the president’s duty was only to make certain that outside forces do not interfere with law enforcement. Accordingly, for example, the president would be obliged to help the judicial branch if some outside force threatened the judicial power, but the president could not use the military to usurp judicial authority.

Similarly, Taney challenged Lincoln’s assertion that emergencies create a prerogative power. Taney found that if the executive branch could, under any circumstances, overstep the powers of the other branches, then ‘‘the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws.’’ The constitution was not simply a suggestion regarding government operations but was instead a document of imperatives, constraining executive authority at all times. If presidents were able to ignore the Constitution ‘‘upon any pretext or under any circumstances,’’ the Constitution would be meaningless.

Finally, and most importantly, Taney declared that the Framers never intended for a president to be able to suspend habeas corpus. It defied any understanding of the events that led to the American Revolution to think that the Framers would support such expanded executive authority. They had just declared independence from an English King whom they believed had acted in a despotic manner. They distrusted any powerful executive authority, and most especially the authority to arrest citizens and hold them indefinitely without trial. ‘‘I had supposed it to be one of those points of constitutional law upon which there was do difference of opinion, and that it was admitted on all hands, that the privilege of the writ could not be suspended, except by act of Congress.’’

Many of Lincoln’s defenders concede that Lincoln’s position on the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was an extreme one, one that expanded presidential authority beyond its rightful limits. Were it the case that this action was the last in the field of human liberty, perhaps history would judge Lincoln more harshly. However, it was not the Lincoln’s last word on human rights.

Emancipation Proclamation

As the War escalated, so did the issues surrounding the war. Despite Lincoln’s own personal commitment to abolitionism, he wished to keep the rhetoric surrounding the war to the narrow issue of national unity. However, it soon became clear that the moral cause undergirding the conflict should be addressed. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves residing in territory in rebellion against the federal government should be free. The action itself freed very few people because it did not apply to slaves in border states fighting on the union side. The states in the Confederacy obviously did not act on Lincoln’s order. However, the proclamation did demonstrate to Americans and the world that the Civil War was now being fought to end slavery. Although the preservation of the union always remained at the center of Lincoln’s rhetoric, the real issue of slavery now had also become public.

Lincoln had reluctantly concluded that he should issue the proclamation. His initial tactic of portraying the war primarily in terms of preserving the Union, however, did not satisfy the abolitionist leadership in Congress and did not dramatize the war for other nations. As pressure for abolition mounted in Congress, however, Lincoln embraced the idea. By September 22, 1862, he had issued a preliminary proclamation announcing that emancipation would take effect on January 1, 1863, in those states that remained in rebellion against the nation. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tactical document; Lincoln well understood that it had primarily symbolic importance at the time it went into effect. However, it did make the abolition of slavery an inevitable consequence of a union victory in the war. And, more tangibly, within the Proclamation, Lincoln sought to encourage black men to join the Union military forces in battle. By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 African Americans had fought for the Union cause, and Lincoln referred to them as indispensable in ensuring Union victory.

Immediately on completion of the war, after Lincoln’s death, the broad application of abolition was accomplished in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed on December 18, 1865. That amendment became a part of Lincoln’s legacy and helped justify his primacy in the roster of American presidents.

Lincoln’s Legacy

Lincoln’s legacy in human rights and liberties thus sends mixed messages. On the one hand, he expanded presidential authority in the suspension of basic liberties, a legacy that continues to foster debate even in modern times. On the other hand, more than any American president, he expressed a passionate view of the centrality of basic human rights. In his famous words: ‘‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.’’ Lincoln did not live to see the end of the Civil War. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865, just weeks before the end of the war.


References and Further Reading

  • Beverage, Albert J. Abraham Lincoln (4 volumes). New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954.
  • Farber, Daniel A. Lincoln’s Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857); Habeas Corpus: Modern History; Slavery and Civil Liberties


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