February 12, 2016 marks the 207th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Although Lincoln is widely revered by the American people, that reverence is not universal. Some on today’s political right condemn him for what they claim to be his violations of the Constitution, his alleged trampling of civil liberties, and his conduct of the war. Meanwhile, many on today’s political left condemn him for hesitating to free the slaves, insinuating that he was a racist who did not care about Black freedom.
Interestingly, these current charges against the 16th president mirror those made by many of his contemporaries. Many Democrats at the time believed that Lincoln was acting the tyrant and that his efforts to end slavery were not sanctioned by the Constitution. On the other hand, Radical Republicans and abolitionists faulted him for moving too slowly against slavery.
But what his critics both now and then fail to recognize is that Lincoln had only one constitutional duty: to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union, and to do this he had to maintain a working coalition of, on the one hand, his own Republican party, which sought to end slavery and on the other, “War Democrats,” who were willing to fight to restore the Union but who did not want to interfere with slavery.
In addition-and this is critically important to understand-Lincoln had no power to end slavery on his own. In this age of executive overreach when our current president seems to believe that he may do whatever he wants “with a phone and a pen,” it is imperative for us to understand that Lincoln accepted the fact that he was constrained by the Constitution, which granted the Federal government no authority over the institution of slavery in the states where it existed. This authority lay strictly with the states themselves. Thus Lincoln could not, as one recent critic has written, simply end slavery with the stroke of a pen.
Lincoln clearly and concisely conveyed his understanding of his constitutional responsibility to save…