‘The moment I was president,” sighed Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1864, people “seemed to think . . . I had the power to abolish slavery.” He didn’t. And despite the demands, the pressure, and even the bullying of abolitionists, politicians, and journalists, he was correct. American slavery, as it existed before 1861 and the outbreak of the Civil War, was a creation of state statutes. In an era that knew nothing about an “incorporation doctrine” requiring the conformity of state law with the federal Constitution, a jurisprudential firewall separated the authority of the federal government (and of Lincoln, …
This article appears as “Abraham Lincoln” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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