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The Civil War

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Americans went to war with themselves. Disunion, published daily in The New York Times, revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period — using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded. Selected articles from Disunion will be recorded here from time to time.

What Sort of Leader Was Lincoln? By STEVEN B. SMITH What kind of a leader was Abraham Lincoln? This is a question that has bedeviled every student of Lincoln who has ever considered it, even today, 204 years after his birth. There is virtual consensus that Lincoln was an exemplary leader, but opinion differs on the lessons to be drawn from his leadership. Did he exert features of moral grandeur and heroism necessary to steer the country through its deepest political crisis? Or was he an aspiring tyrant, especially in his use of executive power? A recent example of how not to think about Lincoln’s leadership comes from the historian and television commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Lincoln called “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” showing how Lincoln drew his cabinet from his personal and political competitors. In a subsequent discussion of Lincoln’s leadership titled “The 10 Qualities That Made Lincoln Great,” she enumerated the key features leading to Lincoln’s success – such things as “an ability to learn on the job,” “the capacity to listen to different points of view” and “knowing how to relax and replenish.” If all of these sound a little too much like a set of recommendations for a modern day chief executive, you would be right: she presented the list in a keynote address given to the 2008 conference of the Society for Human and Resource Management, in Chicago. Rather, to understand what makes a political leader, it is necessary to go beyond simply listing a set of relatively generic character traits common to nearly any successful man or woman, at any point in history. To understand Lincoln’s leadership properly, one must understand it as a feature of constitutional government. Constitutionalism is one of the great themes of Western political thought and is the unique property of the Anglo-American political tradition and, from Magna Carta, habeas corpus and the Toleration Act to the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Federalist Papers, there has been a slowly developing consensus over its fundamentals. Constitutions are devices for controlling the uses of power. Governing in a constitutional manner means governing with respect to forms by which is meant certain formal procedures (rule of law, due process, trial by jury). In some respects constitutional government cares more about the forms than about the outcomes. What is important is that certain formal procedures be followed, and following these procedures confers legitimacy on the outcome. The very term — constitutional leadership — involves a paradox. Leadership involves boldness, decisiveness and action, even a willingness to go it alone; constitutions work in the opposite direction, imposing forms and rules, checks on power and limits on executive initiative. How can one both lead and accept the limitations of constitutional restraint? There is no one whose statecraft more vividly illustrates the style of constitutional leadership better than Abraham Lincoln. He stated the problem of constitutional leadership with uncommon clarity in his Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861. “Must a government, of necessity,” he asked, “be too strong for the liberties of its own people or too weak to maintain its own existence?” As Lincoln understood, the most essential feature of constitutional leadership is self-restraint. Constitutional government is, by definition, limited government. Governments may be limited either with respect to their means or with respect to their ends. Constitutional government is both. It deliberately leaves some things outside the parameters of political control. Our government, for example, respects the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These belong to the discretion of the individual, and it is the task of government to fulfill the function of protecting the exercise of each person’s right to use or misuse their freedom as he sees fit. A government that seeks to supervise every aspect of its citizens’ private lives is on the way to the destruction of constitutionalism. The self-restraint imposed by the doctrine of consent was the opposite of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” proclaimed by Lincoln’s great rival, Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas had argued that it was the right of every state or territory to decide for itself whether or not to permit slavery — a case of simple majority rule. What the majority of people wanted within a designated territory was sufficient to decide the problem. Thus Douglas could declare that it was a matter of “indifference” to him whether slavery was voted up or down. For Lincoln, however, the doctrine of unlimited majority rule violated the principle of constitutional government. Constitutions are devices for restraining power, whether this be the power of a king or a popular majority. If slavery is a good, Lincoln enjoyed chiding his audiences, then it is a good that no man has ever chosen for himself. It is consent that forms the essence of constitutional government. 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, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus, shutting down opposition newspapers, arresting antiwar agitators and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, all of which seemed to go well beyond the more limited powers of a constitutional executive. Lincoln characteristically defended these decisions on the grounds of “military necessity,” measures he deemed necessary to save the Union. The question Lincoln wrestled with is, who is to judge the necessity? Does invoking the necessity doctrine not invest the president with the powers of a dictator? Consider two supreme examples of supreme constitutional restraint. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he knew that he was doing something deeply radical and that he was vulnerable from those who were prepared to wage war to defend the Union but would balk at the idea of a war to emancipate slaves. But there were also those who believed from the outset that the Emancipation Proclamation had not gone far enough. It applied only to those states then in rebellion, but said nothing about slavery in the border states where slavery was still permitted. Lincoln’s secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, for example, favored more radical measures. Responding to Chase, Lincoln wrote on Sept. 2, 1863 that “if I take the step 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?” A second case of Lincoln’s exercise of constitutional restraint concerned the principle of election. His rejection of the secessionist thesis was that it made the operation of free government impossible. If a minority could secede every time it disapproved of the outcome of the vote of the majority, the result would be a swift descent into anarchy. To be sure, the vote of the majority does not confer an absolute power to do what it wanted. But the principle of regular election, Lincoln believed, could provide a check on what popular majorities would be prepared to do. In any case, to give to the minority a permanent veto over the majority was the negation of self-government. “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people,” Lincoln told his audience in the First Inaugural Address. As late as the summer of 1864, Lincoln fully expected to be a one-term president, and even those within his own party were urging another candidate. And yet, he was leader during a civil war. Should the election be postponed, as some were proposing? On this point, Lincoln was in firm opposition. Suspending elections, even in the midst of war, was wrong, even if holding the election would have resulted in Lincoln’s defeat and therewith the cause of the Union. “This morning, as for some days past,” Lincoln wrote in a memorandum some time before the election, “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 cannot possibly save it afterwards.” To his infinite credit, Lincoln realized that free elections should not, even in principle, be sacrificed even if the cost might be the end of constitutional government. For constitutional leadership, the ends do not justify the means. Constitutional leadership is necessarily limited or bounded leadership. It is in this possibility of a leader operating within the limits of constitutional restraint that the hope of our republic rests.

Owner/SourceJoseph P. Rhein
DateMarch 12, 2011

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