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Monday, April 4, 2011

Exfoliating a Hero: On Lincoln's Unconstitutional Overreaching

Lest we get carried away and inadvertantly enshrine our leaders with mythic laurals, it is worthwhile to peel back our societal "remembering" of past figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, who have become larger than life.

Lincoln was a moderate, promising merely not to spread slavery. In his address after being sworn in, he promised not to go after slavery where it existed. Accordingly, radical abolitionists complained. Even so, the 1860 campaign had been viewed, at least in the south, as a referendum on the southern way of life. Lincoln received only 40% of the vote; he was not even on the ballot in ten states.  There were just 33 states in the union at the time. Lincoln's victory suffered from a deficit of legitimacy in some quarters. In fact,he was burned in effigy at a state capitol in the south. With free Kansas becoming a state, the slave states felt that their respective abilities to defend their way of life in the general councils of the union would become even more truncated or dilute. Berift of a sense of influence on general matters that concerned themselves, the confederating republics felt they had no alternative other than secession.

On Feb 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederate States of America. At his swearing in, Dixie, which had been composed by a northerner, was played. The two sides in the continental dispute were closer than they perhaps realized. Both Lincoln and Davis, for example, were from Kentucky originally.  According to the Confederate constitution, Davis had a line item veto and would have had a six year term had the confederacy lasted that long. Astonishingly, international slave trading was outlawed. Even so, there were fundamental differences involved in the dispute. Ironically, had the southern states freed the slaves before firing on Fort Sumpter--depriving Lincoln of his motivational tactic midway through the way--perhaps something resembling the southern way of life in a loose confederacy would have prevailed. The United States would have been left to consolidate to its heart's content.

On the way to his inauguration, Lincoln declared that he would rather be assassinated than to see even one star removed from the flag. Such a stance reflects the "all or none" mentality that accompanies political consolidation. In spite of Lincoln's line in the sand, the War between the Confederated States and the United States began at 4:30am on April 12, 1861.  Technically, it was a war between a federated alliance and a federal government. The opening act was bloodless, even as the war to come was the bloodiest in American history. Siloh alone matched the casualties at Waterloo, and there would be 27 more to come. 51,000 men lost their lives in the three days at Gettysburg alone. The contest between the old and new federal forms exacted a heavy toll in human loss and suffering. Who would have thought that contending distinctions in political theory could be so bloody. Of course, might does not in itself make right, although the passion of the unjustly oppressed can bring about victories disproportionate to the relative lack in number. Furthermore, in this particular case, the respective populations in the federations and the industrialization of several of the union's states gave the forces of modern federalism an advantage not necessarily sourced in the nature of the type.

At the time, the union states had a combined population of 21 million while the confederacy had only 9 million, 4 million of which were slaves and thus not in the fight. In spite of the fact that so many southerners volunteered to enlist that a third of them had to be sent back home, the confederacy was perhaps destined to lose the bellum given the tremendous disadvantage in terms of population. That the conflict lasted until 1865 may point to the extent of resentment that had been allowed to build up throughout the slave states against what was viewed there as an “intrusive” federal government. For example, the devisive tarriff that had nearly caused South Carolina to secede in 1832 was reimposed by the U.S. Government in 1858. As in 1832, the tax was to finance northern industrialization. The states producing cotton and/or rice were left not being able to defend their interests in Washington. Accordingly, that distant government was viewed as encroaching and increasingly foreign. The root of the festering dispute went far beyond the issue of slavery.

To the confederate citizens, the cause involved the rights of their republics as well as their property rights. Slaves, being viewed as property by their "masters"--a decadent conception of slavery unknown to ancient understandings--were thus in play as part of the wider and deeper southern concern with self-determination, which the southerners identified with their respective countries and associated ways of life. Even Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863 (almost two years into the war), applied only to slaves in the states that had already left the union (rather than to the five slave states that had remained).

The confederate states were not subject to U.S. law as long as they were part of the confederacy rather than the union. Lincoln's proclamation was thus extra-constitutional, and thus without immediate effect other than to motivate an increasingly weary northern citizenry and armed forces. To be sure, Sherman freed slaves as he blazed a trail to the sea. However, even without the proclamation, he would have deprived the confederates of their "property" along with their other means until they surrendered. Slavery was not outlawed in the United States until 1865, when the thirteenth amendment was ratified by the states (the former confederate states excluded even though they had been re-afixed to the union).  There was some duplicity involved in, "Welcome back to the union! But unfortunately your vote doesn't count yet because you don't agree."

Fundamentally, the "north" and "south" interpreted the United States differently. This is what the war was really about, and the issue went all the way back to the contentious debates in the constitutional convention in 1787. The delegates had hotly debated whether the proposed General Government would consolidate power via "general welfare" spending and the potentially unlimited taxation, irrespective of the question of slavery. The people who wanted to secede viewed the U.S. as more like a confederation than a modern federal government. That is, confederates viewed their states as countries and the U.S. more as an alliance having only strictly defined enumerated powers that a national government. Robert E. Lee, for example, was offered command of the union army. He refused and went with Virginia. He could not draw his sword, he said, against his native country. Virginia had to come first; there was never any question about that. Such a view of Virginia and the other republics was to fade even as they still retained residual sovereignty at least into the twenty-first century.

In general, the southerners feared that the federal government would usurp more and more power from their countries; as things turned out, the fear was not without foundation. Even then, Lincoln declared war against the confederated states even though the U.S. constitution clearly stipulates that Congress is the governmental body in the U.S. Government that declares war.  As the president is the commander in chief, there is a conflict of interest in that office also declaring war. So technically speaking, the war was not constitutional, and thus legal.  Lincoln also suspended habeus corpus, though the constitution allows for this in time of rebellion.  To keep the Maryland from seceding, he locked up thirteen of the state's legislators without trial. 

Chief Justice Taney, who had four years earlier concurred with the Dred Scott decision, said that Lincoln had gone too far beyond the constitution in the powers he was exercising. Taney was on firm ground on the declaration of war. Even so, astonishingly, the president simply ignored the chief justice. From the standpoint of an independent judiciary with teeth, Lincoln was laying a precedent very dangerous to the republic.

Because the judiciary has no means of enforcing its decisions by force, the branch depends on the other branches, and, indeed, the people, resisting the temptation to contravene a judicial decision. The basis of the resisted temptation rests on the court's legitimacy, for the judiciary has no troops of its own. In fact, Bickel refers to the court as the “least dangerous branch” for this reason. Lincoln’s precedent in simply ignoring the court put at risk the system of checks and balances that resides in the separation of powers in the federal government. Fortunately for us, Lincoln’s treatment of the Chief Justice's effort to hold the executive branch within its proper constitutional sphere, as though Taney were a mere bystander, has largely been forgotten.  Yet the expediency of an imperial presidency has indeed been on display since Lincoln as Congress has gradually lost power to the commander in chief. The danger is real, and Lincoln's precedent could yet be used by an ambitious commander in chief who has his or her eye on another country to invade. 

Ironically, Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions at the beginning of the war ironically to save the union could be viewed as confirming the charges made by the confederates against the encroaching nature of the federal government.  Lest we miss the lesson as we remember the bloody war 150 years later in 2011-2015 from the standpoint of the victors, we might take note of the susceptibility of power itself to consolidate, ultimately in one person—indeed, even in a hero. The consolidating proclivity is as much a danger in the modern American empire today as it was in ancient Rome.  


Source: Ken Burns’ The Civil War (PBS)