Tuesday afternoon, two other Lincoln scholars were online discussing their two new books (Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America; and William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman). I’m not familiar with the work of Guelzo, but Miller is the author of a study important to me, Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (1998).
The two scholars responded to email queries about Lincoln. Someone sent in a question about Lincoln’s actions during the war and William Lee Miller responded:
All presidents--particularly war presidents, presidents inclined to the imperial presidency--invoke Lincoln as a justification, but they omit these three defenses of Lincoln's strong actions (suspend habeas, blockade, increase army without congress, arrest Maryland legislators, etc etc)
1) the situation he faced was UNIQUE. In his view, the United States was threatened with destruction, ruin, overthrow, perishing (all words that he used) which is not the case for any other president, including the current one.
2) there was specific constitutional provision for emergency measures in the case that he faced--an insurrection--which no other president has faced.
3) He did not contend that his actions were immune from Congressional correction; on the contrary, he specifically said he was acting beyond the present provisions in the expectation that congress would retroactively approve, which they did. He did not say anything like Nixon: if the president does it is legal.
And he did not negate congressional action by "signing statements."
What DiLorenzo misses is that the other abolitions were either very limited (as in the liberation of the serfs by Alexander II) or far away from the metropolitan center of those nations (the French and British abolitions were of slavery in the West Indies). What Lincoln had to face was a culturally and politically cohesive bloc of states comprising half the country, refusing to discuss even the limitation of slavery; while he had only the most feeble means of enforcement. The British and the French could do their emancipating at a distance; Lincoln had armed resistance almost literally at his doorstep. And unlike the tsar, he had no enormous army and navy to defend his decree. Bear in mind, also, that the resort to war was not Lincoln's decision, but that of the slave South. Lincoln would have been happy to have solved the slavery problem by compensation -- in fact, drew up a gradual, compensated emancipation plan as early as November, 1861 -- but no slaveholders were willing to go along with it. Mr. DiLorenzo is comparing apples and oranges, and then complaining why they don't make a salad.
As a pretender historian, I think that interpretations of Lincoln by all three of these scholars are not simply academic wrangling; I think they throw light on the way this administration has conducted itself and point to issues a new administration will have to address. We can benefit from this discussion as we deal with the present and look toward the future.