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Our Two Greatest Presidents
Without doubt they were Washington, who walked carefully within the Constitution, and Lincoln, who stretched it as far as he dared
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
These measures, whether strictly legal or not, 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. It is believed that nothing has been done beyond the Constitutional competency of Congress.
He asserted that the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus could belong to him as well as to Congress, but he tactfully left the subsequent disposal of this matter to the legislators. The whole tenor of his message implied that the government of the United States, like all governments, possessed a final power of self-preservation, a power to be wielded primarily by the President of the United States. And this power extended even to the breaking of fundamental laws of the nation—if such a step were unavoidable.
Are all the laws, but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it?
In other words, in an instance of urgent necessity, an official of a constitutional state may act more faithfully to his oath of office if he breaks one law in order that the rest may endure. This was a powerful and unique plea for the doctrine of paramount necessity. It established no definite rule for the use of emergency power in this country, but it does stand as a fateful example of how a true democrat in power is likely to act if there is no other way for him to preserve the constitutional system he has sworn to defend.
Once Congress had reassembled in answer to the President’s call, it did what it could to cut him down from an Andrew Jackson to, at the very most, a James K. Polk. Lincoln, however, although always respectful of Congress, went forward resolutely on his powerdirected course, taking one extraordinary action after another on the basis of the “war power.” He had brought the office of the Presidency to a new plateau of power and prestige, and he kept it there to the end. His interpretation of his powers was stabilized at an exalted level, and it appears that he considered himself constitutionally empowered to do just about anything that the military situation demanded. “As Commander-in-Chief in time of war,” he told some visitors from Chicago, “I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” We need not look beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and the declaration of martial law in Indiana to learn what he meant by “any measure.”
On July 4, 1861, Lincoln had put the searching question, “Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” By April 15, 1865, he had given, once and for all, the great answer of constitutionalism: It need not be either—not if conducted by a man who, paradoxically, can venerate the Constitution even as he dips into it deeply for extraordinary power.
To set up a comparison of two great Presidents like Washington and Lincoln is at best a rather futile business. There are, to be sure, a number of minor points one can make with conviction and some little profit. For example, no two men could have been more different in their methods of day-to-day administration, and no two men could have been more alike in the reliance they placed in trusted subordinates. It is certainly worth noting that the Cabinet of each of these outstanding Presidents ranks among the best three or four ever assembled. If Washington had his Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox, and Randolph, Lincoln had his Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Welles. Each of these skillful groups of lieutenants is a standing reproach to the popular assumption that strong Presidents have surrounded themselves with weak men and weak Presidents with strong men.
In the end, I think, there was one profound similarity, and likewise one profound dissimilarity, between the Presidencies of Washington and Lincoln. The similarity was essentially a question of style , for each was, in his own way, a pragmatic statesman who had little use for doctrine and much for the process of trial and error, and who was most successful in the Presidency when he played by ear. In this sense, both Washington and Lincoln were “characteristically American.” Each had principles in which he believed with something akin to childlike faith, but the principles were never permitted to harden into dogmas that might obstruct the hard choices that had to be made. Each accepted happily the ground rules of American constitutionalism, but within these rules he played the game with an eye for practical success rather than for doctrinal consistency. Each had virtually no precedents on which to fall back for aid and comfort—Lincoln because he was the first President to face decisions in a genuine crisis, Washington because he was the first President to face any decisions at all—and each set a whole array for later Presidents to follow gratefully. And both of them did this most effectively, I repeat, when they hardly knew what they were doing—except that in their respective circumstances they were doing what any sensible man could see just had to be done.