Reviews | Lincoln broke our constitution. Then he did it again.
In April 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln was firmly committed to the Compromise Constitution, which he had approved and adopted throughout his political life. Indeed, the previous month, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln had promised to preserve slavery as a permanent reality mandated by the Constitution.
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” he said, vowing never to challenge what was “clearly written” in the Constitution. “I don’t think I have the legal right to do this, and I don’t want to do it.”
But over the next 18 months, Lincoln violated the Constitution as it was then widely understood on three occasions.
First of all, he made war on Confederation. He did so even though his predecessor, James Buchanan, and Buchanan Attorney General Jeremiah Black had concluded that neither the President nor Congress had the legal power to compel citizens of secessionist states to remain in the state. Union without their democratic consent. Coercive warfare, they argued, repudiated the idea of the consent of the governed on which the Constitution was based.
Second, Lincoln unilaterally suspended habeas corpus, without Congress, arresting thousands of political opponents and suppressing freedom of the press and free speech to a degree unmatched in US history before or since. . When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled the suspension unconstitutional, Lincoln ignored him.
Lincoln justified these two constitutional violations with a dubious theory of wartime necessity: that as chief executive and commander-in-chief he possessed the inherent authority to use whatever means necessary to preserve the ‘Union.
Third, and most fatal, Lincoln came to believe that he also possessed the power to proclaim the end of slavery in the Southern States. When he finally did, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, he ruled out any possibility of reverting to the Compromise Constitution as it existed before the war.