Lincoln and Civil Liberties

The question of whether or not Abraham Lincoln overstepped his constitutional authority in suppressing dissent and curtailing civil liberties is certainly a timely one. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without some new reference to this very topic in a contemporary context, whether it is a story about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency, or a debate over whether military drones should be used in surveillance missions over the United States. Just how much freedom should be sacrificed in the name of security was and is surely a perilous and delicate problem for any president to address, or at least one would hope. In a war or other national emergency, the president has an obligation as commander-in-chief to protect the lives and interests of the United States and its citizens, and that obligation sometimes requires testing the constitutional boundaries of executive authority. On the other hand, the commander-in-chief and members of the armed forces take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and a severe curtailment of constitutional liberties runs the risk of subverting the very principles they have sworn to protect. As Frank Williams observed, “The government walks a fine line between protecting the civil liberties we all hold dear and guarding the safety of our country’s citizens.”[1]

No other president has led the nation during a crisis quite like the Civil War, a conflict that threatened the United States on an existential level. Roosevelt was forced to respond to an attack on American soil, but—and this may be fully understood only in hindsight—neither the Japanese nor the Germans were an immediate and direct threat to the U.S. mainland, and probably never intended to be. George W. Bush faced a similar test early in his first term, and although the September 11 attacks were horrific and an American response was fully justified, it simply was not the case that a few terrorists holed up in caves in Afghanistan posed a threat to the very existence of the United States. Admittedly, this view of Lincoln and the Civil War requires a couple of assumptions: first, that the Southern states did not have the constitutional right to secede; and second, that Lincoln had the constitutional authority to coerce them back into the union. James Buchanan had adhered to the argument “that states had no right to secede and that the federal government had no right to stop them if they did,”[2] a position that Craig Lerner believes the founders themselves would have endorsed.[3] Lincoln agreed with the first half of that formulation, but disagreed that he did not have the authority, and indeed the obligation, to force them back into the union. It is in that context that one must consider Lincoln’s actions as president.

Lincoln most assuredly curtailed civil liberties in pursuit of his goals, especially in his suspension of habeas corpus. However, as with all presidents and their policies, one’s opinion of Lincoln and habeas corpus cannot help but be colored by one’s opinion of Lincoln in general and the assumptions outlined above. The Constitution clearly states that the privilege of habeas corpus may be suspended during a rebellion or invasion. There are two issues at play here: 1) Did the Southern states have the constitutional right to secede? If so, they were not in rebellion and habeas corpus should not have been suspended. Lincoln obviously did not adhere to this view. 2) Who has the authority to suspend the privilege of habeas corpus? The Constitution does not specify, but habeas corpus is discussed in Article I, which enumerates legislative functions and not executive powers. Lincoln, however, felt that it only made sense that the commander-in-chief should be the one to exercise this authority.[4] If one believes that the union is a voluntary one, or if one believes that habeas corpus may be suspended only by Congress, then Lincoln’s actions certainly appear to be despotic. As with most issues, however, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. As Neely pointed out, “The Democratic depiction of Lincoln as a tyrant was to have more influence on history than it merited, but like many political caricatures, it contained a certain element of truth.”[5]

[1] Frank J. Williams, “Civil Liberties v. National Security: The Long Shadow of the Civil War,” Civil War Times 46, no. 4 (June 2007): 24-29,

[2] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 30.

[3] Craig S. Lerner, “Saving the Constitution: Lincoln, Secession, and the Price of Union,” Michigan Law Review 102, no. 6 (May 2004): 1294,

[4] Mark E. Neely, Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 68.

[5] Ibid., 210.


The Belligerents Face off at Fort Sumter

The showdown at Fort Sumter in April 1861 was a drama decades in the making, beginning with a constitutional convention that chose to deal with slavery in terms of abstracts and vague allusions instead of coming to grips with the issue, and continuing through nearly four generations of increasing sectional strife and resentments. The soldiers that faced each other across the waters of Charleston’s harbor were not only mere pawns in this great struggle, but heirs to years of accumulated grudges, utterly convinced of the righteousness of their own cause and the malevolence of their adversaries. The thirteen years since the end of the Mexican War, however, had been witness to the greatest sectional animosity, and it was this period of American history that set the stage for the events of April 1861.

The United States had enjoyed unparalleled commercial and territorial growth during the first sixty years of its existence, and “the American victory over Mexico and the acquisition of the Southwest had sealed the triumph of national expansion.”[1] The victory over Mexico and its attendant expansion of American territory, while a blessing for the nation on the surface, proved catastrophic in the long term, as it “triggered the release of forces of sectional dissension.”[2] The acquisition of so much territory south of the Missouri Compromise line, the failure of the Polk administration to secure an equivalent amount north of the line in Oregon territory, and the defeat of the Wilmot Proviso in the Senate all combined to convince Northerners that Southern interests were ascendant and slaveholding policies would continue to dominate the political discourse.[3] For their part, Southerners became convinced by John Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry that a Northern abolitionist conspiracy was afoot to impose forcibly its will on Southern institutions and culture.[4]

Into this seething mass of mutual distrust and animosity was added the election of a “Black Republican” to the presidency. Despite Lincoln’s many “pledges to respect the Constitution and its clear restrictions upon federal interference with slavery in the states,”[5] Southern states seceded one by one rather than be subjects of an (in their view) abolitionist administration. Lincoln’s desire to demonstrate resolve, restrained as it may have been, further convinced Southerners of his sinister intentions. Emotion long ago had replaced reason on both sides in this sectional divide, and the fuse that sent the first cannonball hurtling toward Fort Sumter had been smoldering for decades.

[1] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 767-8.

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 26-7; Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 27,

[5] McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War, 50.

Lincoln’s Goals

Abraham Lincoln inherited a mess when he was elected to the presidency of the United States and quickly found himself facing an almost insoluble dilemma. The South was terrified of a Lincoln administration, and two days after Election Day the Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury trumpeted a call to arms: “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”[1] Lincoln was quickly confronted with a decision about what to do with two federal forts in the South, and his troubles were compounded by the divided nature of Northern opinion, a split that was mirrored in his cabinet. He had summed up his goals in his inaugural address, indicating that “if fighting should occur, if it could not be avoided, the administration must not be perceived as the aggressor.”[2] The new president spent the next few months vacillating and stalling, walking a tightrope of fear and indecision.

As Lincoln groped his way toward a solution—and even after he had made some decisions—he was hampered by cabinet members, advisors, and military leaders who went out of their way to thwart his plans. While they were certainly being disloyal to their president, there is no indication that these men were traitors to the Union. Rather, they simply believed that the solutions they had in mind were better for the Northern cause than anything Lincoln was proposing. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the dissidents were not a unified bloc; they each had often very conflicting ideas about the best course of action for the administration. Once Lincoln arrived at a plan for dealing with Forts Sumter and Pickens, these advisors schemed to put their own separate plans into motion, and the result was a tragic “comedy of errors.”[3] Lincoln’s advisors had managed to make his position even more difficult, and he was effectively forced to relinquish Fort Pickens and hope against hope that he could hold on to Fort Sumter.

Lincoln knew that the mission to resupply Sumter was hazardous, that it risked a military response from South Carolina. He felt he had no choice, however, not if he was going to affirm Union sovereignty and prestige while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of secession. Lincoln gambled that by sending only supplies into Sumter and not reinforcing the fort with men or materiel, both the North and the southern Border States would see that his motives were purely defensive.[4] As expected, the South Carolinians responded with force, attacking Sumter even before the supply convoy arrived. Lincoln’s gamble may have paid off if he had not overplayed his hand. Two days after Sumter fell to the South Carolinians, Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to put down the rebellion. The Border States that Lincoln had hoped to impress with his restraint and thereby retain in the Union viewed this mobilization as an act of war against their fellow southerners. Within five weeks, four more states had joined the original seven of the Confederacy.[5]

[1] Quoted in David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 485.

[2] Russell A. McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 233,

[3] Ibid., 246.

[4] Ibid., 249.

[5] Ibid., 249-51.

The Inevitability of the Civil War

To the question of whether the Civil War was inevitable, I have to answer with a qualified affirmative. I used to believe that slavery was merely a sub-issue of the overarching “states’ rights” issues that caused the Civil War, but my studies have convinced me that every single “states’ rights” issue in the antebellum period was directly or peripherally related to the question of slavery. Legitimate sectional economic and social differences were either caused by or seriously aggravated by the fact that African slaves provided the bulk of labor below the Mason-Dixon Line. The voluntary abolition of slavery earlier in the nation’s history—during the Constitutional Convention, immediately after the Revolution, or even earlier during the colonial period—would have eased most of the sectional differences that led to disunion. There were opportunities along the way to solve the problem, but they were consistently put off for future generations to attempt to solve.

Woodworth provided a brief but interesting overview of the development of slavery, from the beginnings of the practice in colonial Virginia, through the dangerous shoals of the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, and the increasing sectional hostility of the 1840s and 1850s, to the election of that “Black Republican” president, Abraham Lincoln.[1] The question of slavery could have been resolved during the Constitutional Convention, but delegates from northern states were sufficiently concerned that southern intransigence over slavery would have prevented ratification of the document. This very well may have been the case, but southern slaveholders gained much more than they surrendered with the compromises that allowed the ratification of the Constitution.[2]

By conceding to southern demands about slavery, however, northerners allowed the South eventually to paint itself into a corner, and the lack of viable options split the union and led to war. Southerners, wholly dependent on slave labor and lacking a sufficient population of white laborers, could not allow emancipation without ruining them financially. Surrounded and outnumbered by a race they considered inferior, white southerners feared slave revolts even more than they worried about northern abolitionists. Faced with economic disaster and race war, southerners felt they had no choice but to hold on desperately to their “peculiar institution.” Their desperation was betrayed by the increasingly tortured logic and language they used to defend slavery, and the apologists resorted to Freehling’s absurdly oxymoronic “reasonable extremism.”[3] In an atmosphere of such sectional hostility, with southerners convinced of northern abolitionist schemes and terrified of the consequences, disunion and war appears to have been a foregone conclusion.

Many knew what the consequences would be, long before they came to pass. In a letter to his daughter-in-law in 1820, John Adams wrote, “We must settle the question of slavery’s extension now, otherwise it will stamp our National Character and lay a Foundation for calamities, if not disunion.”[4]

[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 1-24.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 88-96; John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 284-290.

[3] William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1862 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 278-87,

[4] quoted in Ellis, Founding Brothers, 240-41.