Sign In

Article Information

  • Abraham Lincoln: Preserving the Union and the Constitution

    Lincoln’s political positions from the Mexican War to the Civil War offer some tempting targets. In the first military conflict, he criticized President James Polk for exercising executive power in an unconstitutional manner; in the second, Lincoln wielded extraordinary powers after the firing on Fort Sumter. One scholar observed: There is more than a bit of irony in Lincoln’s accusation against Polk. Within half a year of reviving it, Lincoln as president was himself to face the question of sending armed forces into disputed territory, and eventually his decision was to make him the second president to be charged with contriving a war and shifting the guilt to the other side. A close look at Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War reveals some similarities to Polk but also fundamental differences. More so than Polk, Lincoln showed a deeper respect and commitment for popular rule, legislative authority, and constitutional principles. Much of what Lincoln said early in his political career reflected Whig philosophy, including the public’s right to rule through the legislative branch and limitations on presidential and judicial power in order to preserve the principles of self-government. The Whig Party formed in large part as a reaction to what was considered a dangerous concentration of power within the presidency of Andrew Jackson. In a speech before Congress on July 27, 1848, Lincoln said he and the Whigs wanted the people to “elect whom they please, and afterwards, legislate just as they please, without any hindrance, save only so much as may guard against infractions of the [C]onstitution, undue haste, and want of consideration.” Speaking in Boston two months later, on September 15, he emphasized Whig principles “that the people’s will should be obeyed, and not frustrated by Executive usurpation and the interposition of the veto power.” Thos principles helped guide Lincoln's policies when he entered the White House.