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Lincoln's Personal Life
Nathaniel Wright Stephenson
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Is Congress The President's Master?
The period of Lincoln's last eclipse is a period of relative silence. But his mind was not
inactive. He did not cease thinking upon the deep theoretical distinctions that were
separating him by a steadily widening chasm from the most powerful faction in Congress.
In fact, his mental powers were, if anything, more keen than ever before. Probably, it was
the very clearness of the mental vision that enfeebled him when it came to action. He saw
his difficulties with such crushing certainty. During this trying period there is in him
something of Hamlet.
The reaction to his ideas, to what is either expressed or implied, in the first and second
messages, was prompt to appear. The Jacobins did not confine their activities within the
scope of the terrible Committee. Wade and Chandler worked assiduously undermining
his strength in Congress. Trumbull, though always less extreme than they, was still the
victim of his delusion that Lincoln was a poor creature, that the only way to save the
country was to go along with those grim men of strength who dominated the Committee.
In January, a formidable addition appeared in the ranks of Lincoln's opponents. Thaddeus
Stevens made a speech in the House that marks a chapter. It brought to a head a cloud of
floating opposition and dearly defined an issue involving the central proposition in
Lincoln's theory of the government. The Constitution of the United States, in its detailed
provisions, is designed chiefly to meet the exigencies of peace. With regard to the
abnormal conditions of war, it is relatively silent. Certain "war powers" are recognized
but not clearly defined; nor is it made perfectly plain what branch of the government
possesses them. The machinery for their execution is assumed but not described--as when
the Constitution provides that the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus are to be
suspended only in time of war, but does not specify by whom, or in what way, the
suspension is to be effected. Are those undefined "war powers," which are the most
sovereign functions of our government, vested in Congress or in the President? Lincoln,
from the moment he defined his policy, held tenaciously to the theory that all these
extraordinary powers are vested in the President. By implication, at least, this idea is in
the first message. Throughout the latter part of 1861, he put the theory into practice.
Whatever seemed to him necessary in a state of war, he did, even to the arresting of
suspected persons, refusing them the privilege -of the habeas corpus, and retaining them
in prison without trial. During 1861, he left the exercise of this sovereign authority to the
discretion of the two Secretaries of War and of State.
Naturally, the Abolitionists, the Jacobins, the Democratic machine, conscientious
believers in the congressional theory of the government, every one who for any reason,
wanted to hit the Administration, united in a chorus of wrath over arbitrary arrests. The
greatest orator of the time, Wendell Phillips, the final voice of Abolition, flayed the
government in public speeches for reducing America to an absolute despotism. Trumbull
introduced into the Senate a resolution calling upon the President for a statement of the
facts as to what he had actually done.
But the subject of arrests was but the prelude to the play. The real issue was the theory of
the government. Where in last analysis does the Constitution place the ultimate powers of
sovereignty, the war powers? In Congress or in the President? Therefore, in concrete
terms, is Congress the President's master, or is it only one branch of the government with