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What Kuttner could learn from Lincoln

On Saturday in “Thinking about the Great Liberator” I wrote a little on Lincoln’s exercise of the commander-in-chief’s war powers during the Civil War. Wielding Lincoln as his club, left-winger Robert Kuttner coincidentally attacked President Bush in a column for the Boston Globe on Sunday: “What Bush could learn from Lincoln.” At Discriminations, John Rosenberg commented on Kuttner’s column: “What would Lincoln do? What Lincoln did.”

My point was that Lincoln’s construction of the war powers of the commander-in-chief belies much of the silly commmentary on Bush by liberals like Kuttner. I would enjoy reading Kuttner on Lincoln’s defiance of Chief Justice Taney’s order to free John Merryman on the ground that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional. Lincoln respectfully disagreed and ignored Taney’s order. I hope Kuttner will get around to writing such a column someday; he might learn something if he studies up enough to write it.

Lincoln enunciated his understanding of public necessity enhancing the constitutional powers of the president during wartime on many occasions, perhaps on no occasion more memorably than in his 1864 letter to Albert Hodges on the Emancipation Proclamation. Read and learn from America’s greatest, most influential interpreter of the Constitution:

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act official upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together.

When Kuttner returns to the subject of Lincoln, he may also remind us of the role played by the Peace Democrats during the Civil War, and how Lincoln dealt with them. If he does so, I hope he will title his column in a manner similar to that of his column yesterday.

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