Our Two Greatest Presidents


Lincoln came to the office with very few advance thoughts about the authority it embodied. He had never put himself publicly in either camp, and many of his critics were certain that his administration would prove too feeble for the awesome task at hand. Lincoln soon proved them grossly wrong in their judgments of his character and their fears for the Presidency. In sharp contrast to the vacillating Buchanan, who had denied his own authority to coerce a state to remain in the Union, Lincoln turned to military force as the final answer to secession. He was never greatly concerned about the forms his actions might take. It was enough for him to act—as Commander-in-Chief, supervisor of the faithful execution of the laws, and sole legatee of the unbounded grant of power we can read for ourselves in the first few words of Article II of the Constitution.

It became necessary for me to choose whether, using only the existing means, agencies, and processes which Congress had provided, I should let the Government fall at once into ruin or whether, availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the Constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it, with all its blessings, for the present age and for posterity.


The way in which Lincoln moved step by step to sweeping authority can be read in the timetable of his actions in the eleven weeks of mingled despair and hope between the fall of Fort Suinter and the meeting of a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861.

April 15: He calls out “the militia of the several states of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand,” in order to suppress the rebellion and enforce the laws. At the same time, he summons the two houses of Congress to convene in special session on July 4, thus giving himself a free hand to crush the rebellion swiftly without the vexatious presence of an unpredictable legislature.

April 19: He clamps a blockade on the ports of seven seceded states, a course of action hitherto regarded as contrary to both the Constitution and the law of nations except when the government is embroiled in a declared, foreign war. A week later the blockade is made complete.

April 20: He orders a total of nineteen vessels to be added immediately to the Navy “for purposes of public defense.”

April 20: He proceeds quietly, almost offhandedly, to take a number of extraordinary actions. He pledges the credit of the United States for a temporary loan of a quarter of a billion dollars; closes the Post Office to “treasonable correspondence”; authorizes persons “represented to him as being or about to engage in disloyal and treasonable practices to be arrested by special civil as well as military agencies and detained in military custody”; and directs Secretary of the Treasury Chase to advance $2,000,000 of unappropriated funds to three private citizens of New York who are absolutely unauthorized to receive them, “to be used by them in meeting such requisitions as should be directly consequent upon the military and naval measures necessary for the defense and support of the government.”

April 27: He empowers the commanding general of the United States Army to suspend the writ of habeas corpus along the line of communication between Philadelphia and Washington, this in the face of almost unanimous opinion that the constitutional clause regulating the writ is directed to Congress alone, and that the President has no share in this power of suspension.

May 3: He boldly invades the reserved area of congressional power by appealing for “42,034 volunteers to serve for the period of three years,” and by enlarging the Regular Army by 22,714 and Navy by 18,000.

July 2: He extends from Philadelphia to New York the line along which the writ of habeas corpus may be suspended.

These actions add up to the so-called “Lincoln dictatorship,” a pattern of presidential activity unparalleled in the history of the United States. By the time Congress had come together on July 4, Lincoln had set on foot a complete program—military, executive, legislative, and even judicial—to suppress the insurrection. When one thinks of the governments that have operated under the label of “dictatorship” in recent years, any such description of Lincoln’s weeks of unchecked power rings like blatant hyperbole. Yet it cannot be denied that he took many steps of an unprecedented, radical, and constitutionally questionable character.

Lincoln greeted the session of July 4 with a special message, a remarkable state paper in which he described most of the actions he had taken, rationalized the more doubtful of these by referring to “the war power of the government” (his phrase and evidently his idea), and invited congressional ratification. Lincoln himself apparently entertained no doubts about the legality of his calling out the militia and establishing the blockade, nor did he find it necessary to explain why he had chosen to postpone the emergency meeting of Congress to July 4. For his actions of a more legislative and therefore constitutionally more doubtful character, he gave a different justification: