Abraham Lincoln indictment as “constitutional dictator” | Books


THE BROKEN CONSTITUTION: LINCOLN, SLAVERY AND THE FOUNDATION OF AMERICA by Noah Feldman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $ 30

In this bold and insightful offer, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman argues that as president Abraham Lincoln unilaterally tore up and remade the Constitution, ensuring the end of slavery but also “effectively turning himself into a constitutional dictator “. While Feldman’s book, The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Rebuilding of America, has many valuable ideas, his argument downplays a crucial context. Feldman blames Lincoln for his suspension of civil liberties during the war, but has little to say about the abuses of power that sparked the constitutional crisis: prolonged suppression of free speech by southern slavers or their radical challenge to Lincoln’s legal election.

Feldman’s early chapters trace Lincoln’s political rise and his unwavering commitment to the “compromise constitution.” As a young politician, Lincoln supported the dominant view of the Constitution as a model for the preservation and expansion of the Union, founded on the sanctity of compromises establishing, as Feldman writes, “a balance. powers between free states and slave states ”. Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was based on his admiration for Whig statesman Henry Clay and the belief that the South, along with the North, should be prepared to make some concessions on the issue of slavery.

Feldman briefly discusses the abolitionists’ challenges to this pro-compromise centrism and their debates over whether to condemn the Constitution as pro-slavery or to interpret it as anti-slavery. Such debates were possible because the document was, according to Feldman, “self-contradictory” in its provisions on slavery.

Lincoln grew increasingly uncomfortable, during the Mexican War (1846-1848) and its aftermath, with how Northerners paid a moral price for their loyalty to the creed of compromise. Lincoln was pressured to change his original position by pro-slavery in the South who asserted an increasingly aggressive slavery expansion program in the 1850s, as evidenced by the Kansas-Nebraska law and the Dred Scott decision, both of which invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820. When Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party, he tried to save the Constitution from compromise, but he has now interpreted it as geared toward confining the slavery and its eventual extinction.

Turning to Lincoln’s conduct as president, Feldman explores how he justified forcing secessionist states to return to the Union. Feldman skillfully contrasts President James Buchanan’s position that the federal government was powerless to wage war on the states with Lincoln’s belief that the president had a constitutional duty to quell a rebellion. According to Feldman, in asserting federal sovereignty over the disgruntled South, Lincoln rejected the Constitution’s premise of compromise that the people must consent to be governed.

In places, The broken constitution reads like an indictment of Lincoln, accusing him of illogical, incoherent, paranoid thinking and of “subverting” the Constitution. At the heart of his case is Feldman’s chapter on the wartime suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The suspension of the writ meant the government could use martial law to arrest and detain civilians indefinitely without trial. This presidential policy has led to widespread military arrests and press censorship targeting critics of the administration, as well as Confederate collaborators. Lincoln sought to justify the suspension by saying that the Constitution allows it in “emergency danger” and that it is necessary to repeal this only legal protection to uphold the broader rule of law threatened by the secessionism.

Academics have debated the extent of Lincoln’s curtailment of free speech, with historians such as Harold Holzer pointing out that much of the press censorship during his presidency was uncoordinated and spontaneous. But Feldman dismisses such arguments as apologetics.

He says Lincoln’s policies “created the most extreme suppression of free speech at any time in US history.” Such an emphatic claim is misleading and reveals an omission in this book: Feldman’s lack of attention to the manipulation and contempt of the Constitution by southern slavers. The southern ruling elite used coercion and censorship to maintain their political dominance. Southerners destroyed anti-slavery leaflets, imposed a “gag rule” on Congress that silenced the voices of anti-slavery petitioners, engaged in massive mob attacks on reformers, and passed draconian laws that criminalize anti-slavery expression. There was no free speech in the pre-war South for blacks, slaves or free, and virtually none for white dissidents in the South or anti-slavery Northerners who wanted to make inroads into the South. Southern electorate. The Sud Blanc did not tolerate any compromise on this issue.

In the eyes of Republicans like Lincoln, the “slave power” of the South (ruling elite) has repeatedly bent the Constitution and attempted, by rejecting the result of an 1860 presidential election and leaving the Union, to break it. irreparably. The stated objective of the Republicans was to loosen, by a combination of incentive and force, the hold that the secessionists had over the southern masses.

Feldman periodically acknowledges that it was the Secessionists who broke the Constitution, but he does not give this theme as much space as he did with the rupture created by Lincoln. The president’s ultimate turnaround, argues Feldman’s final chapter, came on the issue of slavery. Clinging to the belief that the federal government could not legally force abolition on slave states, Lincoln hoped at the start of the war to save the constitutional principle of compromise on slavery, through proposed measures such as the compensation for those in border states who freed their slaves.

But when it became clear that targeting slavery was a military necessity, Lincoln embraced the idea that he could use his powers of war as Commander-in-Chief to “impose new standards on Southern society by strength “. As public opinion in the North turned to anti-slavery, Lincoln redefined emancipation as a moral duty. In doing so, argues Feldman, he “shattered all the norms” of the pre-war compromise Constitution and ushered in a new paradigm of the “Moral Constitution”, cleansed of its immoral aspects and transformed into a “worthy object of justice.” reverence and moral aspiration. “

By drawing a stark contrast between Lincoln’s political goals and his moral goals, Feldman rekindles an old scientific consensus that what began as a war for the Union has turned into a war against slavery. Recent scholarship has moved away from this narrative and instead emphasizes the continuity of the northern war goals: Lincoln and his party viewed saving the Union and undermining slave power to be interconnected moral and political imperatives. . And Lincoln clung to his vision of a Union based on consent – to convert whites in the South, through his policy of lenient amnesty, to the gospel of free labor.

Feldman’s stimulating argument for abruptly disrupting the Union’s war goals is sure to spark heated debate. But his clever argument would have been better served by a less polemical tone. It is shocking to hear Lincoln described as a dictator, when all of his predecessors, who allowed the expansion of slavery and the large-scale suppression of anti-slavery sentiment, escape judgment. ??


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