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Lincoln: Dictator Or Prudent President?

No better way to reflect on New Year’s Day than to think on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln brought about a new birth of freedom for our nation at the price of the greatest expansion of executive power in our history.

But was Lincoln a “dictator,” as liberal scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or Edwin Corwin once said? Or did he properly expand presidential powers to react to the greatest challenge in our history? Here’s my take, on the opinion page of Fox News:

Lincoln’s greatness is inextricably linked to his broad vision of the executive. He invoked his authority as commander in chief and chief executive to conduct war, initially without congressional permission, when many were unsure whether secession meant war. He considered the entire South the field of battle. While he depended on congressional support for men and material, Lincoln controlled all tactics, strategy, and policy. Only Lincoln’s broad interpretation of his commander in chief authority made the sweeping step of freeing the slaves possible.

Read more here.

Lincoln image via Shutterstock.

  1. Schrodinger

    dictator (n.) late 14c., from Latin dictator, agent noun from dictare (see dictate (v.)). Transferred sense of “one who has absolute power or authority” in any sphere is from c.1600. In Latin use, a dictator was a judge in the Roman republic temporarily invested with absolute power.

     

    Lincoln: Dictator Or Prudent President?

    Lincoln was both. He made the Presidency a “dictatorship” in the classic sense by using extra-ordinary powers in a time of crisis. The key is that this use of power was temporary. Given the national emergency he was dealing with, his use of “dictatorial” powers was prudent.

  2. Benjamin Glaser

    I’ll never get over the irony of “conservatives” lauding Lincoln as a good President, especially when the revisionism of “freeing the slaves” is placed at his feet.

    And nothing says “prudence” like a wholly unavoidable war that destroyed a region of the country and cost more than 600,000 lives.

  3. Gus Marvinson

    Oh man, is this Libertarian Lincoln-hate bait. I’m with you, John. Lincoln acted as Commander in Chief and his actions were aimed at ending the war with the United States whole. Lincoln never pitched emancipation as the reason for war, but he understood it to be a tool for winning it.

  4. raycon and lindacon

    If memory serves, the South announced it’s secession before Lincoln took office as President.  The South attacked Ft. Sumter and declared war on the North.  Lincoln, as President and Commander In Chief, acted as such.  Since Congress was not in Washington at the moment, he acted and then requested permission from Congress when they returned.

    The South has many justifiable complaints about the aftermath of the war, but once again, Lincoln was not there.  A Southerner, John Wilkes Booth assassinated him, leaving the South with Johnson, who owns most of what happened.

    Sadly, the Southern world view of the negro as an inferior race bred for servitude is the cause of the Civil War.  Northern industrial power and other Congressional infractions against the South were wrong, but to argue that the South did not bring that war on itself is generational antipathy that rivals anything the Serbs and Slavs have ever carried.

  5. Benjamin Glaser

    Do we need to replay here Lincoln’s own thoughts of the “Negro race”? 

    This “Southern worldview” was the view of 98% of America outside of a few Presbyterians of Covenanter heritage and a minority of the abolition movement. 

  6. Fake John Galt
    @RayconandLindacon #4: “If memory serves” You guys were there?
  7. The King Prawn

    Not a dictator. Lincoln only freed the slaves in the areas that were in rebellion. Freeing of slaves in what remained of the constitutional republic still required an amendment.

  8. raycon and lindacon
    Rocket City Dave:  I think we’d be much better off if Stephen Douglas or John Bell had become President. We’d have avoided the bloodbath of the Civil War.

    That’s something I rarely hear acknowledged. Lincoln didn’t just ruthlessly win the Civil War he caused that bloodbath with his election. · 38 minutes ago

    I believe that it was the voters of the United States that committed the act of electing Lincoln.  Had Douglas won, slavery would have been secure until a civil war eventually happened.

    Which of the two alternatives do you prefer?  That a civil war ended slavery, or that the negro in America remain a slave until now.

    Don’t indulge the fantasy that the Southern culture would willingly give up slavery.  England ended it peacefully because slaves there were never essential to the functioning economy.  They were a luxury of the rich.

    Millions of acres of cotton would not pick itself, and the cost of mechanization was beyond the southern economy or it’s capabilities.  If anything, we can blame Eli Whitney for the Civil War because it was his cotton gin that created the demand that the plantations served.

  9. Devereaux
    Rocket City Dave:He expanded government power beyond the Constitution and made the Presidency an almost Imperial office.

    Much of what’s wrong with our government can be traced back to Lincoln. I think we’d be much better off if Stephen Douglas or John Bell had become President. We’d have avoided the bloodbath of the Civil War.

    That’s something I rarely hear acknowledged. Lincoln didn’t just ruthlessly win the Civil War he caused that bloodbath with his election. · 1 hour ago

    RC notes that secession occurred before Lincoln  took office. Careful examination of the events immediately after he took office show Lincoln did pretty much everything to avoid a war. It was that dufus, Beauregard, that fired on a Federal installation. ?And the president was to do nothing. 

    ?Want to blame someone for the Civil War, consider Robert E. Lee. He was a sworn American Army officer, and his state, Virginia, had not seceded. He was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac.  Had he accepted, it is quite likely neither Virginia nor North Carolina would have seceded. That would have left the cotton pickers, and they wouldn’t have survived on their own.

  10. Red Feline
    Schrodinger’s Cat

     Lincoln: Dictator Or Prudent President?

    Lincoln was both. He made the Presidency a “dictatorship” in the classic sense by using extra-ordinary powers in a time of crisis. The key is that this use of power was temporary. Given the national emergency he was dealing with, his use of “dictatorial” powers was prudent. 

    Surely this is true? According to the Constitution:

    Section. 2.

    The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; …

    Lincoln was certainly faced with an unusual crisis. The Southern States (the Confederation) had declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, attacked the Northern States (the Union) at Fort Sumter, and began the Civil War ( 1861-65).

    On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about how to deal with such a crisis. Did the Northern States have the legal right to retaliate against the Southern States? The Fort apparently was in Southern Carolina. Did they have the right to try to remove it from what they no doubt saw as a Southern State? What was the law in this situation?

  11. Red Feline
    Benjamin Glaser: I’ll never get over the irony of “conservatives” lauding Lincoln as a good President, especially when the revisionism of “freeing the slaves” is placed at his feet. … 

    Forgive my ignorance, but I have never lived in the States so don’t understand the nuances of what you are saying, Benjamin, but as a student of American history and politics, really want to do so.

    I think I can understand the revisionism of “freeing the slaves” being ironic when lauded by “conservatives”. Weren’t the Southern States essentially “conservatives, and they definitely didn’t want to give up their economic advantage of having a virtually unpaid work force?

    But aren’t modern “conservatives” different in attitudes? Is that why they can now applaud Lincoln? And, of course, there seem to be so many different opinions on whether Lincoln was a liberal or conservative.

    Aren’t most people a mixture of all the different ideas out there? Wasn’t Lincoln?

  12. Red Feline
    Benjamin Glaser: …

    And nothing says “prudence” like a wholly unavoidable war that destroyed a region of the country and cost more than 600,000 lives. ·  

    This is my question about the Civil War and Lincoln: was he justified in using force against the Southern States? The war ruined a way of life, beggared the plantation owners on whom so many relied for their living, left desolation, poverty, and so many men and boys injured or dead.

    Conservatives are meant to be “prudent”, aren’t they? Is this what you mean, Benjamin? Lincoln certainly seems more like a Liberal in this determination to follow a principle regardless of the cost in lives. Think French, Russian, etc., revolutions.

  13. Devereaux
    Benjamin Glaser: It is a flat out historical falsehood that Lee’s march north and Sherman’s March to the Sea are even remotely similar. That is just libelous. 

    So now anyone who doesn’t think Lincoln is deserving of Sainthood thereby supports slavery? lol.  · 1 hour ago

    ?Really Benjamin. Read the accounts of the battle of Gettysburg. They took all the food, livestock, horses, and wagons. In Gettyburg Ewell took all the shoes from a factory there. They burned bridges, buildings, storage facilities. Indeed, one of Lee’s “purposes” was to “bring the war to the North”. The difference was that Sherman had more time, so he covered more area. But Lee had already shown what needed to be done. And let’s not even talk about Quantrill or Nathan Bedford Forest. And all of this was well before Sherman.

    It is one of the many southern pretensions that only the North acted “badly” while they were wonderful people.

  14. Devereaux
    Rocket City Dave: The South was put under military occupation for over a decade after the war and after the end of slavery. The war may have been motivated by utopian abolitionist impulses of the Yankees but it was primarily used to expand federal power and redistribute the nation’s wealth from the South to the North.

    The South was hardly blameless but the war was motivated as much by the North as by hotheads in the Deep South (who represented just as fringe a minority as the radical Republicans who used the war for power).

    Whatever motivated it the War enabled Presidents like Wilson, FDR and LBJ to use limitless federal power to take away our freedom and our rights. · 5 hours ago

    After the war had nothing to do with Lincoln. Indeed, there is much speculation, especially based on things like the 2nd inaugural, that Lincoln wanted to patch things in a far friendlier way than ended up happening. But then, the south killed him, now didn’t they.
  15. Devereaux

    The concept that Lincoln “increased” the size of government suggests that a nation at war is not allowed to actually BE at war. Notice that the units involved were primarily state, even if the federals paid for the weaponry and powder. They remained state units.

    Lincoln worked with and responded to congress. The fact that there was no southern segment in opposition isn’t really “unusual”. There were political opponents, however. Newspapers did criticize Lincoln. Indeed, immediately after he gave the Gettysburg Address he was roundly attacked as being “inadequate” in his words.

    After the war the North mostly demilitarized. Indeed, one aspect was the large supply of rifles that they then had “no use for”. They ended up giving families going West rifles to protect them on their journey, the final solution to all those Springfields laying about.

    The whole federalist/republican argument hardly applies to Wilson-FDR-Johnson-Obama. The latter were fascists/socialists/statists – pick your preferred label – not hardly federalists.

  16. Skyler

    Not a dictator but definitely not a friend of liberty or freedom.

    A statesman would have found an easier resolution to secession.

    Most Lincoln admirers immediately extol how he preserved the union, but it is not clear why that was necessary or desirable. Lincoln may have freed the slaves, a debatable point, but he did that by sacrificing the right to self-determination, our right recognized in the Declaration of Independence.

    He wasn’t a dictator, he was the first successful big government president and he killed more people than any president.

  17. Look Away

    Ditto Skyler!

    If Lincoln was so visionary why didn’t he try an economic plan whereby the Southern planters, already at the mercy of Northern industrialists, would have been compensated for freed slaves by the Federal Government, the slaves would have been given working wages and education or land out west to resettle. Sure it might have cost $8-10Billion by what is that against the deaths of 600,000 Americans? Probably was an unacceptable price to Northern interests who thought nothing about utilizing child labor on a 18 hour, six day work load for pennies  a day.

    By the way, if the War had not been fought, and the status quo remained, something Lincoln would have been happy with and accepted, then what would have happened in 20 to 30 years when steam and the tractor would have made the slave obsolete? What would have happened then? Kick 9-10 million people to the curb with no education, training or wealth? I think you would have seen a civil war that made the one we had seem like a bar fight.

  18. Look Away

    Incidentally, Southerners came back to the fold within a generation of the War being over. To equate my ancestors with Serbs, Arabs or any other group fighting for centuries is highly insulting and insensitive.

  19. Red Feline
    Gus Marvinson: Oh man, is this Libertarian Lincoln-hate bait. I’m with you, John. Lincoln acted as Commander in Chief and his actions were aimed at ending the war with the United States whole. Lincoln never pitched emancipation as the reason for war, but he understood it to be a tool for winning it. · 5 hours ago

    Edited 3 hours ago

    If the Southern States didn’t want to give up their practically free work force of slaves, why was emancipation a tool for ending the war? Did the Northern States want it signed before the war ended because it probably would be harder to achieve afterwards?

    The facts are easy to learn, but there is always so much more involved behind the scenes, as it were.

  20. Red Feline
    tabula rasa: I agree with Schrodinger’s Cat.

    I don’t believe Lincoln was by inclination dictatorial.  But, let’s face it, he was dealing with a problem that was, shall we say, “existential.”  He did things that in a quiet period he would never have done (e.g., suspension of habeas corpus).  So let’s judge him in the context of crisis he was dealing with.

    As a conservative, I have no problem viewing Lincoln as a hero.  Allen Guelzo, one of our best Lincoln scholars, has made, over and over, a strong case that conservatives can lay claim on the Lincoln legacy far more than can Obama. 

    I find I can look at Lincoln from more than one viewpoint. From your viewpoint, TR, I can see him as a conservative leader. He wanted to keep the States together and united, and he did what was necessary to do this. As Commander in Chief of the army, etc., he took control, and made sure the war was won.