Lincoln, the Antiwar Congressman
The only time before his presidency when Abraham Lincoln held national office was a single term (1847-49) in the U.S. House of Representatives. During that time, while debating the Mexican-American War, Lincoln zealously defended the constitutional prerogative of Congress to declare war and enact legislation against a perceived usurpation of these powers by the executive branch. Between December 22, 1847, and July 27, 1848, in speeches on the House floor and in his personal letters, Lincoln argued against the right of any president to initiate a war. There are no better arguments against President Lincoln’s unconstitutional war of 1861 than his own.
Congressman Lincoln addressed the subject of the Mexican-American War in three major speeches: on his “Spot Resolutions” (December 22, 1847), on war with Mexico (January 12, 1848), and on the “presidential question” (July 27, 1848). But his most insightful analysis of why the Constitution assigned the power to declare war to Congress, and Congress alone, was given in his letter of February 15, 1848, to his friend and law partner William H. Herndon.
Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever, he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure. . . . The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.
In another letter to Herndon, dated February 1, 1848, Representative Lincoln had written about his opposition to the Mexican-American War:
That vote affirms that the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President; and I will stake my life, that if you had been in my place, you would have voted just as I did . . . Richardson’s resolutions, introduced before I made any move, or gave any vote upon the subject, make the direct question of the justice of the war; so that no man can be silent if he would. You are compelled to speak; and your only alternative is to tell the truth or tell a lie.
These words could be mistaken for those of another antiwar congressman, Clement L. Vallandigham, whom President Lincoln would arrest and deport. On May 1, 1863, Vallandigham delivered a speech at Mount Vernon, Ohio, denouncing President Lincoln’s war as
a wicked, cruel, and unnecessary war . . . a war not being waged for the preservation of the Union . . . a war for the purpose of crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism . . . the sooner the people inform the minions of usurped power that they will not submit to such restrictions upon their liberties the better . . .
Representative Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions (which the House ignored and did not adopt) urged Congress to ask that the President answer his eight questions regarding the legitimacy of the war. The fifth asked
Whether the People of that settlement, or a majority of them, or any of them, had ever, previous to the bloodshed . . . submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas, or of the United States by consent, or by compulsion . . .
The sixth inquired “Whether the People of that settlement, did, or did not, flee from the approach of the United States Army, leaving unprotected their homes and their growing crops . . . ” These two, in particular, expressed Lincoln’s moral outrage at the apparent violation of civilians’ democratic rights and the safety of their persons and property—an outrage Lincoln would abandon while conducting his own war.
Lincoln’s most important antiwar speech, on war with Mexico, was more partisan, attacking the motivation and emotional stability of President James K. Polk. It alienated his constituents back home, ensuring Lincoln would not be elected to a second term. His criticisms of President Polk, however, are directly applicable to his own behavior as president:
I carefully examined the President’s messages, to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true, all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him. . . .
[L]et the President answer the interrogatories, I proposed, as before mentioned, or some other similar ones. Let him answer, fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts, and not with arguments . . . But if he can not, or will not do this—if on any pretense, or no pretense, he shall refuse or omit it, then I shall be fully convinced, of what I more than suspect already, that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong—that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him. . . .
[H]e plunged into it, and has swept on and on, till, disappointed in his calculations . . . he now finds himself, he knows not where. How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream, is the whole war part of his message. . . .
[T]he president is, in no wise, satisfied with his own position . . . His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface, finding no position, on which it can settle down, and be at ease.
[The President] is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity.
Congressman Lincoln then asks his colleagues in the House of Representatives what is to be done with the population inhabiting territory captured by the U.S. Army. “I suppose no one will say we should kill the people, or drive them out, or make slaves of them, or even confiscate their property.”
Yet these are the very policies President Lincoln would support and laud General Sherman, among others, for implementing. In his official report dated January 31, 1864, Sherman declared,
Next year their lands will be taken, for in war, we can take them, and rightfully too, and in another year they may beg in vain for their lives . . . Many, many peoples with less pertinacity have been wiped out of national existence . . . to the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is a mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better.
On July 26, 1864, President Lincoln commended Sherman for his conduct in warfare: “My profoundest thanks to you and your whole Army for the present campaign so far.”
Approval was not restricted to private correspondence. On September 3, 1864, President Lincoln issued two proclamations: One praised Sherman; the other mandated public celebrations in his honor. Lincoln’s “Executive Order of Thanks to William T. Sherman and Others” declared:
The national thanks are herewith tendered by the President to Major General William T. Sherman, and the gallant officers and soldiers of his command before Atlanta, for the distinguished ability, courage, and perseverance displayed in the campaign in Georgia, which, under Divine favor, has resulted in the capture of the City of Atlanta. The marches, battles, sieges, and other military operations that have signalized this campaign must render it famous in the annals of war, and have entitled those who have participated therein to the applause and thanks of the nation.
The second presidential proclamation, “Executive Order for Celebration of Victories in Atlanta, Georgia, and Mobile, Alabama,” proclaimed
That on Wednesday, the 7th day of September, commencing at the hour of twelve o’clock noon, there shall be fired a salute of one hundred guns at the Arsenal at Washington, and at New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Newport, Ky., and St. Louis, and at New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola, Hilton Head & Newberne, the day after the receipt of the order, for the brilliant achievements of the army under the command of Major General Sherman, in the State of Georgia, and the capture of Atlanta. The Secretary of War shall issue directions for the execution of this order.
In criticizing Polk’s war with Mexico, Representative Lincoln displayed prescience with words that indict the proclamations of President Lincoln and all those
trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.
As an antiwar politician, Lincoln returned to the question of civilians in a speech on the “Presidential question”:
The marching [of] an army into the midst of a peaceful . . . settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops, and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure; but it does not appear so to us. So to call such an act, to us appears no other than a naked, impudent absurdity, and we speak accordingly.
The policy so eloquently condemned here is the very policy pursued by President Lincoln between 1861 and 1865. As General Sherman described it in an official correspondence dated December 24, 1864, “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies.”
After Sherman completed his destructive March to the Sea known as the Savannah Campaign, which culminated in the occupation of that city, he received another laudatory note from President Lincoln (December 26, 1864):
Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannah. When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that “nothing risked, nothing gained,” I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours . . . Please make my grateful acknowledgments to your whole army, officers, and men.
In January 1865, Sherman boasted:
I estimate the damage done to the State of Georgia [alone] . . . at $100,000,000; at least $20,000,000 of which has inured to our advantage, and the remainder is simple waste and destruction.
Seventeen years earlier, in his speech on the presidential question, Lincoln had declared to the war hawks in Congress that
the distinction between the cause of the President in beginning the war, and the cause of the country after it was begun, is a distinction which you can not perceive. To you the President, and the country, seems to be all one. You are interested to see no distinction between them; and I venture to suggest that possibly your interest blinds you a little.
As president, Lincoln implied (if not insisted) that in wartime the cause of the president and the country are one. So to an inquiry from the House of Representatives as to the unlawful arrests of city officials in Baltimore, he wrote on July 27, 1861, that,
In answer to the resolution of the House of Representatives of the 24th instant, asking the grounds, reasons, and evidence upon which the police commissioners of Baltimore were arrested, and are now detained as prisoners at Fort McHenry, I have to state that it is judged to be incompatible with the public interest at this time to furnish the information called for by the resolution.
Continuing on the presidential question, Congressman Lincoln opposed what he perceived as threats by the president to advance executive authority by usurping powers of the legislature:
[T]hat the constitution gives the President a negative on legislation, all know: but that this negative should be so combined with platforms, and other appliances, as to enable him, and in fact, almost impel him, to take the whole of legislation into his own hands, is what we object to . . . To thus transfer legislation, is clearly to take it from those who understand, with minuteness, the interest of the people, and give it to one who does not, and cannot so well understand it.
That is exactly how President Lincoln governed—by usurping the powers of the legislature. Pro-Lincoln scholars acknowledge this. James G. Randall wrote that “It thus appears that the President, while greatly enlarging his executive powers, seized also legislative and judicial functions as well . . . ” Clinton Rossiter concurred, writing that
[Lincoln] was allowed to proceed without external check to a series of unusual measures which he alone deemed necessary to lay the rebellion. Unlike Cincinnatus, this great constitutional dictator was self-appointed.
Of Lincoln’s executive acts, he added: “This amazing disregard for the words of the Constitution . . . was considered by nobody as legal.”
This unconstitutional expansion of the powers and prerogatives of the executive office by President Lincoln was for the express purpose of prosecuting a war to advance his economic agenda. The result was death, corruption, and war profiteering. Over 600,000 Americans were killed as the federal government was transformed, according to Lincoln’s attorney general Edward Bates, into a bloated bureaucracy of institutionalized corruption. Lincoln’s friends and cronies did quite well. The war
assured the fortunes of a dynasty of American families . . . Brewsters, Bushnells, Olcotts, Harkers, Harrisons, Trowbridges, Langworthys, Reids, Ogdens, Bradfords, Noyeses, Brooks, Cornells, and dozens of others . . .
This series of tragedies brought forth by President Lincoln proved the wisdom and insight of Representative Lincoln, who, in a speech on June 20, 1848, observed: “I say there are few stronger cases in this world of ‘burthen to the many, and benefits to the few’ . . . than the presidency itself . . .”