Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

1
Lincoln and the Constitution: The Dictatorship Question Reconsidered

A CONVENTION HAS GAINED ACCEPTANCE in American historiography which, in this Orwellian year that has come to symbolize totalitarian rule, it is fitting for us to consider. I refer to the convention that regards Abraham Lincoln not simply as a forceful war leader who demonstrated the vast power inherent in the presidency, but as a dictator, albeit in many accounts a benevolent and constitutional dictator. Lincoln, it is said, took the law into his own hands in meeting the attack on Fort Sumter and subsequently in dealing with the problems of internal security, emancipation, and Reconstruction. The author of a well-known treatise on emergency government in the Western political tradition states that "it was in the person of Abraham Lincoln that the constitutional dictatorship was almost completely reposed. . . ."1 To be sure, some writers use the dictatorship convention in an expressive rather than analytical way to describe the growth of executive power during the Civil War. Moreover, although the characterization derives from contemporary attacks on Lincoln by the Confederate foe and the Democratic political opposition, it has not on the whole been applied with hostility. Yet it is fair to ask whether any description of Lincoln as a dictator-- whether constitutional or otherwise--is accurate. As one who himself has employed the convention, I claim the privilege of reconsidering it. I do so not only with a view toward providing a more historically sound description of Lincoln's exercise of presidential power, but also in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of

____________________
An earlier version of this chapter was delivered on May 10, 1984, as the Seventh Annual R. Gerald McMurtry Lecture.
1
Clinton Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies. ( Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948), p. 238.

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