John VanBerkum, Staff Writer

Critics claim Lincoln violated the spirit of the Constitution in the Civil War; did he?

Abraham Lincoln is one of America’s most revered presidents, but he has also been criticized for circumventing the Constitution. Professor Benjamin Kleinerman of Michigan State University defended Lincoln against this charge in a November 7 lecture entitled “Lincoln’s Executive Discretion: The Preservation of Political Constitutionalism.”

During the Civil War, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeus corpusby imprisoning of hundreds of Confederate soldiers without observing the due process of law. He also greatly expanded presidential war powers, bypassing Congress numerous times.

Critics contest that Lincoln’s actions were directly contrary to the democratic order set up by the Constitution. Kleinerman, on the other hand, argued that Lincoln’s actions were necessaryto uphold those very same principles of the Constitution.

Kleinerman proposed that the purpose of Congress is to engage in politics or debate over policies for the country. Congress exists as a forum for competing political interests and for Congressmen to handle the problems voiced by their constituents.

On the eve of the Civil War, however, the Southern Congressmen cast the ballot aside and reverted to bullets. “You can’t go from ballots to bullets,” Kleinerman said during the question and answer session. “That’s moving politics out of the realm of deliberation and compromise and elections and into the realm of ‘I’ve got more force than you.’” Lincoln had to work around Congress to protect the true order of the Constitution, he argued.

Lincoln believed that the presidential powers must expand because the South circumvented normal politics. Kleinerman argued that the emergency expansion of presidential powers was in no way political but rather aimed at protecting the Constitution.

A common fear (understandably so) in early America was that a single person with unbridled presidential power would become an uncontrollable dictator. Lincoln’s power during the Civil War, therefore, could have led to a permanent usurpation of Congressional power and a circumvention of checks and balances.

According to Kleinerman, however, Lincoln’s actions were justified because military actions are beyond the scope of Congressional power. Under Article One, Section Eight, Congress has the power to declare war, but the president is the commander-in-chief and runs military operations. The Radical Republicans during Lincoln’s time wanted Congress to have ultimate control of military actions, even to the point of ordering generals and troops.

Lincoln resisted this idea because he believed that military power was not a political action and, therefore, not subject to Congressional authority.

The real despotism,” Kleinerman explained, “is a legislature claiming wartime necessity as they just take people’s property.”

These land-grabbing tactics would be distinctly political, which is not how war powers are supposed to be exercised. Consequently, these actions are not part of the Constitutional powers of Congress.

The Congress was without the Confederate contingent during the Civil War, resulting in a body with reduced political purpose due to the lack of an opposing side with which to debate. To protect Congress and maintain its political nature rather than resorting to despotic practices, Lincoln argued that the presidential emergency powers had to be expanded: “For politics to be meaningful, that is, for it to be based on compromise, deliberation, and adjudication, it must be bound by certain Constitutional limitations.” By exercising executive discretion, Lincoln reasoned that he was protecting the Constitution and its institutions.

Critics also claim that Lincoln was simply following the precedent set by President James Polk in the Mexican-American War: In this instance, Polk declared war on Mexico without Congressional approval after American troops were shot at in Mexico.

Lincoln condemned this use of presidential power because the American troops were in Mexican territory when they were engaged in battle. This was not a legitimate end for the use of executive discretion. Once war begins, however, Lincoln conceded that the time for politics had ended.

To rescue himself from the accusation of hypocrisy, Lincoln argued that the Civil War was different. He could not actually reason that the conflict between the north and south required a declaration of war because that would be to admit that the Confederate states comprised an independent nation. Discussion about war should start in Congress, but once war was declared or engaged, politics needed to stop and executive control of the armed forces needed to begin.

Rather than bypassing Constitutional provisions, Lincoln saw himself as upholding Constitutional values and institutions. Congress’ purpose is politics, and during a time of civil war, executive power must be expanded to protect Congress from becoming despotic. Lincoln kept the union alive through his power of executive discretion, Kleinerman

John VanBerkum is a sophomore political science and philosophy major living in O’Neill Hall. If you think that the penny is the coolest coin, email him at