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Lincoln

The American Civil War on my levels represented Lincoln as a heroic figure in American History and Politics. As many believe, Lincoln was responsible for ending slavery in America, which in itself is an amazing feat. What many don’t understand is the steps he had to take to accomplish that goal and save the Union simultaneously. The Civil War era in many ways was a complicated war in which Lincoln had to make some decisive decisions that were controversial on many levels. Today, some historians look at these decisions as abuses of power.

Lincoln knew his power as president had to be used during the difficult times that both preceded the war and during the war. Sometimes that power had to go beyond what the Constitution and the three branches of government would allow in order to preserve and save the Union which up until then had lasted 85 years.  He did this because he felt he needed to for the survival of the country. Lincoln, in a sense, created a new platform for the Constitution during war times. Because of the unparalleled emergency of the state of the Union by a completely unusual domesticated enemy, Lincoln knew that his only choice was to utilize whatever executive power he held to preserve the Union. This summation will encompass those decisions and how Lincoln used them to accomplish his goals and preserve the country. Because of the unparalleled emergency of the state of the Union by a completely unusual domesticated enemy, Lincoln knew that his only choice was to utilize whatever executive power he held.

At the beginning of Lincoln’s term and the eruption of the Civil War the powers of the federal government were not completely clear or distinguished.  The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 initiated Lincoln’s test of his power as Commander in Chief. He first issued a proclamation to add 75,000 troops to defeat the southern seceded states.   This proclamation created a larger Navy and Army. On top of all of these extensions he then ordered a blockade of the southern coast and followed this by the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He made all of these decisions without the consent of the Congress.

Preceding the Fort Sumter battle Lincoln and his military advisors discussed many different ideas on how to save the Union and bring the southern states back from secession. The Confederate Army opened fire on Fort Sumter after tensions were soaring over secession. This gave Lincoln and his advisors ammunition to begin to prepare an army for defense. A bold decision was to deliver a proclamation to request troops to be trained for battle. The proclamation was not a masterpiece by Lincoln but was a simple request for troops. The paper was fashioned in a way that made it clear that Lincoln needed to write it and declare it and then move on. This proclamation, Lincoln believed needed to be started and started quickly in order to raise an army to defeat the Confederacy. Lincoln made this decision despite what the Constitution states about raising armies. The Constitution states that the Congress has the power to raise armies and not the president. Lincoln, ignored this clause and continued with his proclamation despite the law.  Lincoln knew that the future of the United States was at stake and was prepared to do whatever it took to keep the Union intact.

Another decision was that of the blockade of the southern states. The blockade prevented the trade of goods and services including weapons to be exchanged between the Confederacy and other countries.  On April 19, 1861, President Lincoln announced the blockade with his own proclamation that forcibly closed over 3,500 miles of Confederate Coastline. This coastline was a prominent economical area for the South as the ports within that coastline provided the goods and services for maintaining the southern cotton crops. The blockade also prevented any other weaponry to be delivered or transported to the south by any other country.  By issuing this blockade the south would suffer economically and prevent the south from having a strong defense. Lincoln hoped this would prevent them from any success which would be in his eyes begin the path of saving the Union. The proclamation that Lincoln ordered however, had legal issues. Many historians view this as an act that would be suited for an imperial president. Because the blockade represents a state of war, which only Congress can decide on, Lincoln issued the blockade on his own recognizance ignoring the pathway to Congress. To issue a blockade Lincoln knew the fall-out would be detrimental. Still, his goal was to save the Union.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus was designed to bring a person who has been detained or convicted in to a court in order to review the legality of the person’s arrest. The Habeas Corpus Writ protected persons from illegal detention or imprisonment. If a person feels that he has been unjustly held than he or she can petition the courts for a judge to seek whether or not the person is being justly detained. If the judge finds that a person is being unjustly held, the person can then be released. The clause is written under section one of the Constitution and during the Civil War Lincoln suspended the law in order to preserve the Union. Lincoln temporarily suspended the law in order to keep the communications of the Confederates at a lull. Steven Woodworth’s, This Great Struggle America’s Civil War, mentions a case specific to Lincoln’s decision. John Merryman was arrested for recruiting for the Confederacy in a divided Maryland. His lawyer petitioned the court for a writ of habeas corpus and Roger B. Taney a pro-slavery judge, ordered his release on the argument that the president did not have the authority to suspend the law and that it was held in the power of the congress. Woodsworth explains that the Constitution. “is silent on the issue of who may suspend the writ, noting only that it may indeed be suspended in times of rebellion.”[1]  Congress agreed with Lincoln’s stance on the issue of habeas corpus and upheld his decision to suspend the law during war to protect and save the Union. There were many reasons why Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus but the bottom line was that Lincoln needed to do whatever it took to keep the Union intact. In the beginning the suspension was issued because of the rioting within military districts. Riots were heavy and many of the rioters were blocking soldiers from coming through to protect certain areas, including Washington. The suspension then had spread throughout the entire country and Lincoln in a sense took away many civil liberties away from its citizens. People were detained and arrested for making anti-war speeches and newspapers were being shut down for criticizing the war.

For the decisions that Lincoln had made for the prosperity of the Union, the same decisions were being made on the side of the Confederacy. Like in many wars, civil liberties are put on hold for the victory of a country. When the South was losing faith in victory the soldiers began to desert the army, which the Confederate Army did not hesitate to shoot when tensions were high. The conscription laws of the south that began just one year prior to the north had also assaulted civil liberties and many men dubbed the war as, “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”[2] With the Civil War was a terribly particular situation that had unique circumstances that caused both sides to abandon some of the Constitution in order to preserve liberty.

The Constitution is clear in its terms about the power of the President of the United States. In cases of war the Congress can declare war and the President would be the commander and chief of the armies. When the Constitution was created the drafters were in agreement that the power of the president should be limited. They believed that if the power to declare lead armies would result in too much power which would lead to oppression. With the southern states seceding and a portion of the country in a hostile environment with a US Fort attacked, Lincoln could easily justify his reasons for declarations and proclamations.

There is no doubt that Abraham Lincoln felt like his country was endangered and in a state of rebellion. In this case the Constitution is very clear on the power of the presidency. He was willing to do anything to save the Union and had to make drastic decisions quickly in order to keep the country safe and protected. He did not use his extended presidential powers to obtain personal triumph or gain, he did what he thought was right in order to defend his country.

Looking back on the Civil War, the decisions made by President Lincoln were critical for a successful victory for the Union. If Lincoln had not made the excessive decisions that he made, the outcome of the war would have been drastically different. In the beginning of the war, he made these decisions to keep Washington safe. Without them, the Confederacy could have taken Washington and the war would have been over. Mackubin T. Owens in an editorial column writes:

“Lincoln firmly believed that the power he needed to deal with the rebellion was a part of the executive power found in the Constitution. As he wrote to James Conkling in August of 1863, “I think the Constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war.” In addition to the commander-in-chief clause, he found his war power in the clause of Section II requiring him to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and his presidential oath “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”[3]

The Civil War was a unique and completely unfamiliar to other circumstances that the country had been faced with at the time. Lincoln set a precedent that paved the way to look at war power under a completely different umbrella.


[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011), 38.

[2] Ibid, 227.

[3] Mackubin T. Owens, Vigiliance and Responsibility: Civil Rights During the Civil War, November, 2007, http://ashbrook.org/publications/oped-owens-07-civilliberty/ (assessed August 10, 2013).

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