Lincoln Defended
The Case Against the Critics of Our 16th President

(Broadside Books)


Rich Lowry

Even DiLorenzo concedes that slavery was the initial cause of secession, but he does it almost by way of an aside, so that he can keep his focus on the tariff and economics. But slavery was the South’s prism for everything. Some southerners worried that if the federal government could impose a tariff, it could interfere with slavery. The South’s commitment to federalism was highly situational. It insisted on a federal Fugitive Slave Act to tighten the screws on anyone in the northern states who was insufficiently zealous about returning runaways. Southern Democrats walked out of the 1860 Democratic convention when the party couldn’t forge a consensus on a platform demanding federal protection for slavery in the territories.

Lincoln’s forceful response to the dissolution of his country is another count against him for his critics. They, of course, call him a “dictator,” among other choice names. Economist Paul Craig Roberts called him “an American Pol Pot, except worse.” For DiLorenzo, he was “a glutton for tyranny.” These Lincoln-haters are real sticklers for the Constitution yet have no use for the admonition in Article II that the president take care that the laws be faithfully executed.


They come up with fanciful alternatives to military conflict. Ron Paul wonders why Lincoln didn’t forestall the war by simply buying up and freeing the slaves. With his usual sense of realism, Paul ignores the fact that Lincoln repeatedly advanced schemes for just such a compensated emancipation. Lincoln argued for these proposals as “the cheapest and most humane way to end the war.” But except in the District of Columbia, they went precisely . . . nowhere. The border states weren’t selling, let alone the South. Even little Delaware, which was selected as a test case because in 1860 it had only 587 slaveholders out of a white population of 90,500, couldn’t be persuaded to cash out of slavery. One plan proposed by Lincoln would have paid $400 or so per slave and achieved full abolition by 1893. A version of the scheme failed in the state’s legislature.

The bottom line is that the South created a national emergency, and, ever since, its apologists have excoriated Lincoln for responding with emergency powers. After the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lincoln replied with every lever at his disposal — and then some. He called out the militia. He blockaded southern ports. He called for volunteers to increase the size of the regular army and expanded the navy. He directed that $2 million be forwarded to private citizens in New York for expenditures related to the national defense (he suspected the loyalty of the federal bureaucracy). He did all of this without consulting Congress, which wasn’t in session. Lincoln, who wanted to control the early response to the war, didn’t call it back until July 4.

There was no doubt about his power to call out the militia. For the rest, he fell back on the authority of Congress. “These measures, whether strictly legal or not,” he said in his July 4 message to Congress, “were ventured upon, under what appeared to be a popular demand, and a public necessity; trusting, then as now, that Congress would readily ratify them.” Expanding the military and appropriating funds without Congress can’t pass constitutional muster, but Congress did indeed bless all his military measures retroactively — in the bill’s language, “as if they had been issued and done under the previous express authority and direction of the Congress of the United States.”

Most controversial is Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. He first suspended it between Washington and Philadelphia in April 1861 after troops heading to the undefended capital from the north were attacked by a mob in Baltimore, after which Baltimore railroad bridges and telegraph lines were cut. This was a genuine crisis of a government beset by enemies on all sides. Article I, section 9 of the Constitution says, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” The circumstances certainly justified suspension, but the placement of this provision in Article I suggests it is a congressional power.

Congress rendered the question moot in 1863 when it passed a law saying the president had the power to suspend. As the suspension covered the entire country, the military arrests and trials brought inevitable overreaching and abuses. They earned Lincoln a rebuke from the Supreme Court after the war, when it ruled against military trials where civilian courts were still open. Some high-profile arrests, most famously of the anti-war Democrat Clement Vallandigham of Ohio — in 1863, without Lincoln’s prior knowledge — have proven embarrassments for the ages. But in his careful, Pulitzer Prize–winning study of civil liberties during the war, Mark Neely gives a basically exculpatory though hardly uncritical verdict on the Lincoln record.


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