With Malice Toward One in Chicago

I’ve just returned from my stint in Chicago at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, where Dan Weinberg interviewed William Blair and I about our new books (I’ve taken today’s post headline from Bill’s volume – with one alteration). The three of us talked for an hour and I think it could have easily continued on for much longer. But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I?


Bill’s book focuses more on the 1860s than mine does and consequently we spent a good deal of time discussing the war years rather than afterwards. Still, I think our books complement each other quite well and I wanted to elaborate on this a little.

One of the questions Dan asked us at the end of our interview was whether the country was “lucky” to have had Lincoln as president. Both of us answered yes, although for different reasons. As Bill writes in the conclusion to his book (a book that should be of interest to all Americans interested in issues of civil liberties and presidential power in wartime. Please buy it and read it carefully. It is, quite simply, splendid):

“Was he [Lincoln] a dictator? No. Did he ignore the Constitution? No again. But did he allow policies and procedures of questionable constitutionalism – and even questionable need? Yes. . . . Lincoln . . . prevented the ship of state from sailing too far into unconstitutional waters.” (page 306-307)

This judgment aligns with my own. Indeed, I think it characterizes pretty well the position I laid out in my own book.

“Abraham Lincoln, other conservatives held, was no imperialistic dictator who emancipated slaves yet enslaved freed men. Dictators may hold elections, but they do not worry much about losing them, as Lincoln believed he would in August 1864, when the Union’s military fortunes were at low ebb. Nor do tyrants tolerate the type of vitriol and hatred that was leveled against the president throughout the war. Without question Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus remains rightly controversial, and his sometimes heavy-handed suppression of political opposition was unprecedented. In his book about presidential power Crisis and Command: The History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush (2009) Bush administration and Justice Departmentattorney John Yoo defended Lincoln’s presidency as great, or transformative, precisely because he used executive power so forcefully: ‘Lincoln’s greatness is inextricably linked to his broad vision of presidential power.’ Moreover, Yoo described Lincoln’s presidency in language that seemed to justify Bush’s actions in the War on Terror, writing that ‘the Unique nature of the Civil War forced the Lincoln administration to reduce civil liberties in favor of greater security.’ . . . Lincoln’s critics are right to recall the president’s civil liberties violations (although they are not as quick to note that the Confederacy likewise suppressed their people’s liberties). Libertarians oppose war for just this reason: they believe that war, in addition to its horrific violence and violation of [Murray] Rothbard’s nonaggression axiom, permanently enlarges the state and leads to a diminishment of freedom. Nevertheless, the situation Lincoln faced as president was unprecedented, as Lincoln himself acknowledged: ‘I can be no more persuaded that the government can constitutionally take no strong measure in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not be taken lawfully in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown not to be good food for a well one.’ Today’s leaders abuse the historical record when they invoke Lincoln as precedent for their own domestic or foreign malfeasance. Even Yoo said as much: ‘Not every President is a Lincoln, and not every crisis rises to the level of the Civil War.’ Still, Yoo was being somewhat disingenuous here in that he imprudently saw relatively few, if any, constitutional limits on executive power (i.e., the unitary executive), whereas Lincoln prudently stressed those same constitutional limits on his own presidential office. Americans should therefore remind themselves of Lincoln’s words of the unparalleled nature of the crisis he faced in  the 1860s and resist the more boundless claims of his successors whenever they use the sixteenth president to justify their own civil liberties violations.” (page 321-322)

I’ll have further posts on our conversation in the next few days. I would imagine that soon enough the entire interview will be accessible online, at which point I will post the link.

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