Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Time of War - Foreign Policy Research Institute (2023)

In his study of Abraham Lincoln's warfare,Tested by war(2008), historian James McPherson notes that although he is "the only President" whose entire administration was limited by war."

While Lincoln's name is often associated with President Barack Obama, the true parallel between Lincoln and a contemporary president is that of Lincoln and George W. Bush. After all, it was Bush who faced a Lincoln-like crisis after the September 11 attacks. Among the issues facing both Bush and Lincoln were the decision to go to war, the balance between "vigilance and responsibility" in relation to security and civil liberties, domestic opposition to the war, and civil military relations.

Lincoln offers many lessons for war presidents, but he himself had to learn how to walk. While Bush could look back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln, and FDR could look back to Lincoln, Lincoln himself had no precedent to turn to. However, it had a constitutional framework transmitted to it by the American founders.


By the time of Lincoln's inauguration in March 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. A little over five weeks later, rebel gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In response, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve ninety days. Four other states left the Union, denouncing the president's "coercive policy". The war that followed, the costliest in American history, was to last four years. By the time it was over, some 600,000 Americans had died and the South had suffered staggering economic losses.

Lincoln was breaking new ground in confronting the rebellion, claiming sweeping emergency powers that he believed were vested in the executive branch by the constitution. He called out the militia, authorized increases in the regular army and navy, spent funds on military purchases, dispatched armed forces, blocked southern ports, suspended habeas corpus in certain areas, authorized arbitrary arrests, and set up military tribunals in civilians occupied or contested territories to justice. He later authorized conscription and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln justified these steps as necessary to save the Union and preserve the Constitution. He saw the constitution mainly as a framework for the sharing of power within onerepublican government, because only a republican government was able to protect the liberty of the people. Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as thatStiftungof such a government, and the constitution as thatmeansimplement it.

Lincoln and the War Power

As Geoffrey Perret observed, Lincoln created the role of Commander-in-Chief, but he didn't create his war power out of thin air. Lincoln believed that the authority he needed to deal with the rebellion was part of the executive power found in the Supreme Commander Clause of the Constitution, the Section II clause that tells him to "take heed." that the laws will be faithfully carried out,” and his Presidential oath to “uphold, protect, and defend the U.S. Constitution.” However, Lincoln believed that his prerogative to maintain Republican government was limited by the will of the people and that all extraordinary powers were limited to the duration of the emergency.

Lincoln faced a number of dilemmas as wartime president, including the dual nature of the conflict: it was both a war and a domestic insurgency. Lincoln believed that states could not legally separate and accordingly that the Confederacy was a fiction. As such, he had to be careful lest his steps be construed as recognition of the Confederacy. This applied to his decision to blockade southern ports, traditionally a measure taken against a belligerent, and to confiscation.

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Lincoln and the Secession

Lincoln could have avoided war, at least in the short term, if he hadn't done anything to prevent Southern secession. That was the course followed by his predecessor, James Buchanan. But Lincoln believed his constitutional responsibilities required him to hold the union together and hand it over to his successor as the founders intended—an indivisible union. In doing so, he had the political theory of the founders behind him, but he also had a number of practical concerns. The dissolution of the Union would have created something for the originatorsThe Federalistwere extremely concerned about: small, weak confederations, "a prey to discord, jealousy, and mutual injuries." Alexander Hamilton feared that such confederations would lapse into disputes among themselves, leading to a European-style militarization of the Americas and being vulnerable to the intrigues and machinations of European powers seeking to reestablish their influence in North America.

In fact, the Confederacy envisioned an empire stretching north to the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River, and west to the Colorado. It allowed Missouri and Kentucky to statehood despite the lack of a secessionist majority in either state. Confederate Congress initiated treaties with the Native American tribes, dispatched an expedition to conquer New Mexico Territory, and organized a separate Arizona Territory.

If secession had been allowed to continue, the Union would have continued to disintegrate. In January 1861, Fernando Wood, the Democratic Mayor of New York City, recommended that the city break away from New York State and establish itself as a "free city."

Finally, Lincoln's constitutional obligations did not allow him to consent to secession unless approved by those who elected him president. The people, not the chief magistrate, can "set terms for the separation of states." The duty of the executive "is to administer the present government as it has come into his hands, and to transmit it unperturbed by him to his successor."

Lincoln understood the risk involved in resorting to guns; hence the conciliatory tone of his first inaugural address, in which he attempted to reassure the South that he had no intention of interfering with slavery, where it already existed. Lincoln actually believed that there was unionist sentiment throughout much of the South and that if he bided his time, that sentiment would bring breakaway states to their senses. But when it came to war, Lincoln understood the importance of the South firing the first shot. When the commander of Fort Sumter told Lincoln that he could not hold out much longer, the President decided to resupply the fort but not reinforce it. The Confederate government fired on Fort Sumter, with the result that northern public opinion sided with the President. Those who criticize Lincoln for "tricking" the Confederacy into firing on Fort Sumter ignore substantial evidence that Southerners desired separation with or without war and that some feared a compromise that would keep them in the Union would.

The Domestic Politics of the Civil War

Critics who call Lincoln a "dictator" ignore the fact that members of Congress from both parties have constantly questioned his policies and strategy. Lincoln had to navigate the treacherous waters of partisan politics to wage the war. To this end, he built a working coalition composed mostly of moderate Republicans and War Democrats, while placating radical Republicans where he could. There was not much he could do about the "peace" wing of the Democratic Party, the "Copperheads," who were dangerously close to crossing the line from dissent to obstruction. Lincoln appointed his four main competitors for the Republican nomination to Cabinet posts in 1860: William Seward as Secretary of State; Edward Bates as Attorney General; Simon Cameron as Secretary of War; and Salmon Chase as Treasury Secretary. After initial missteps, Seward became the staunchest cabinet member; Cameron's integrity was always suspect, and Lincoln soon replaced him with Edwin Stanton, a War Democrat who had been James Buchanan's Attorney General. Stanton became Lincoln's actual right-hand man during the war.

The tensions that developed in Lincoln's cabinet were a microcosm of the difficulties the president faced in his overall warfare. Lincoln had to keep both the Radical Republicans and the "Peace Democrats" in check at all times. The former saw Lincoln's prudent approach to war as too coy; the latter sought a negotiated solution with the breakaway states.

Vigilance and Responsibility: Civil Liberties in Wartime

The most controversial element of Lincoln's wartime presidency is his treatment of civil liberties. Even many of Lincoln's defenders argue that he overstepped constitutional limits by declaring martial law, arbitrarily arresting and trying civilians before a military tribunal, and shutting down opposition newspapers. After the war, the Supreme Court criticized many of these measures inEx parte Milligan.

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In his speech to a special session of Congress after Fort Sumter, Lincoln addressed the dilemma faced by a president in emergency situations. "Is there," he asked, "this inherent and fatal weakness in all republics? Must also be a government of necessitystarkfor the freedoms of his own people, or elseweakto sustain one's existence?” Indeed, throughout the history of the American republic, there has been a tension between two virtues necessary to sustain republican government:alertnessandresponsibility. While vigilance is a necessary virtue, if left unchecked, it can lead to extremism that incapacitates a government and prevents it from delivering the common defense. Responsibility, on the other hand, is the prudent judgment required for a limited government to fulfill its purposes.

Lincoln's actions as wartime president reflected his adherence to this principle. Due to the unprecedented nature of the emergency, he felt he had no choice but to exercise sweeping executive power. He noted that those who wished to destroy the constitution would rely on the fact that "the government would be greatly hindered in arresting its progress by the same constitution and the same law." If anything, he wrote, he had waited too long to implement emergency measures. "Imbued with awe for the guaranteed rights of the individual, I was slow to adopt the harsh measures that I gradually came to regard as constitutional exceptions and essential to public safety."

Lincoln's military contribution as Commander-in-Chief

On the surface, Lincoln seemed ill-prepared for the military challenges presented by the crisis. He had served as a militia captain during the Black Hawk War, but had seen nothing. His only term in Congress was lackluster. Like most Whigs, he gained notoriety for opposing the Mexican War. Accordingly, some historians have concluded that his contribution to the Union victory was minimal. Given the relative power of the North, the argument went, Union victory was a foregone conclusion. A variation on this view holds that Lincoln's main contribution was finally finding the right general in Ulysses S. Grant.

In recent years, however, historians have begun to give Lincoln more credit as a war leader, noting that he was responsible for setting Union policy and developing and implementing a strategy to achieve his policy goals. He skillfully managed his cabinet, his generals, and even Congress. He did not hesitate to overrule his military and civilian advisers. He had to make the decisions that turned the North's advantages into military and political success. He also had to defeat Confederate armies, which upset Union plans more than once.

Lincoln and the Union Strategy

Although Lincoln had no formal military training, he learned quickly and proved a competent strategist. He intuitively stuck to the old adage that in war "the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing". The "main thing" for Lincoln was to preserve the Union. But like any good strategist, Lincoln was willing to adapt his strategy to achieve this goal.

Lincoln understood that the key to Union victory was the simultaneous use of military force at multiple points, making it difficult for the Confederacy to defend its territory. Although not successfully implemented until 1864, Lincoln articulated the principle in early 1862 when, troubled by the immobility of his armies, he issued his General Order of War No. 1, directing Union forces to, on Washington's birthday, February 22, to act together, 1862.

He also understood that successful strategy required the Union armies to defeat the Confederate armies—that it was the Confederate army, not the Confederate territory or capital, that formed the Confederacy's "center of gravity."

Finally, he understood the importance of the West in Union strategy. By early 1862, Union armies had been using the Tennessee River as a "principal line of operations" to advance deep into western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Grant's subsequent victory at Shiloh allowed Union forces to capture large portions of the Confederacy's only remaining east–west railroad line, opening the way to both Vicksburg on the Mississippi and Chattanooga. The capture of the latter eventually allowed Union forces to penetrate the Appalachian barrier and capture Atlanta.

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Emancipation as a political-military strategy

Lincoln's strategy was also a political strategy, the main weapon of which became emancipation in late 1862. Emancipation struck not only at the Confederacy's warlike potential, but also at the heart of the Southern social system. But Lincoln had to tread carefully for domestic reasons, for while emancipation was welcomed by abolitionists and their radical Republican allies in Congress, it was denounced by conservative Democrats in the North and loyal slaveowners in the Union's remaining slave states. Lincoln needed both groups if he was to fight the war successfully, but in balancing their needs he was denounced as too fast by the conservatives and too slow by the radicals.

The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln's response to the failure of Union arms and the refusal of loyal slave states to accept gradual, compensated emancipation. After Lee's invasion of Maryland was repulsed at Antietam, Lincoln issued an interim declaration of emancipation, giving the Confederates one hundred days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation. But the proclamation also reflected Lincoln's concerns about the legality of other alternatives favored by radical Republicans in Congress, such as Treating fugitive slaves under federal control as "war contraband"; Seizure; and emancipation as part of martial law. All, he believed, were unconstitutional and open to legal challenge.

In fact, it was possible that a slave owner whose property had been confiscated in this way could successfully sue in federal court even after a successful war to subdue the rebellion. Lincoln did everything he could to keep emancipation out of the federal courts, fearing that if the federal judiciary ever took up emancipation, the court would become the guarantor of slavery and throw back the prospect of all future emancipations, just like Dred Scott had stipulated support for efforts to prevent the spread of slavery into the Territories.

The stronger medicine represented by the Emancipation Proclamation was necessary because the Confederacy was making its maximum effort to mobilize its people for war. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed a draft law and organized its mobilized manpower into field armies. One of these forces, the Army of Tennessee, defeated Grant at Shiloh. Lee's army of northern Virginia drove McClellan out of the gates of Richmond. Then, in the fall of 1862, the former invaded Kentucky and the latter Maryland. The South was only able to do this in large part because slave labor freed white men to fight. Emancipation could undermine the South's slave labor system, thereby undermining Confederate efforts to mobilize their military resources.

Militarily, the Emancipation Proclamation opened the way for the next logical step in the process of weakening the South and strengthening the North: the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union Army. The personal blessing for the Union was considerable. Around 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army. By the end of the war, they made up 12 percent of the Union's military manpower.

While the material contribution of African Americans to the Union victory was significant, their participation in the war was important in gaining their own freedom for their own sake. Without their participation, the war to save the Union "as it was" could not have morphed into a war to save the Union "as it should be," and it is unlikely that African Americans would ever have achieved full citizenship and equal rights in the United States USA and Lincoln understood the psychological implications of recruiting black troops to the Union cause. As he wrote to Andrew Johnson, Tennessee's unionist governor, "the mere sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled Black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would put an instant end to the rebellion."

Lincoln took a huge political gamble by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Because of his action, Republicans paid an enormous price during the 1862 election. Republican votes have declined 16 percent since 1860, and the party suffered disastrous setbacks in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey. Such losses led some to conclude that Lincoln would not enact final emancipation. But he did so for reasons made clear in his annual message to Congress for 1862. “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…. The fiery test we are going through will enlighten us, honor or dishonour, down to the youngest generation.”

Similar speculation surfaced in the dark days of the summer of 1864, when Lincoln thought he would not be re-elected. Most War Democrats and many Republicans saw Lincoln's commitment to emancipation as an obstacle to peace. The Republican National Committee chairman told Lincoln on August 22 that party leaders thought Lincoln would lose. But Lincoln refused to budge.

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Lincoln and his generals

Eliot Cohen has argued that Lincoln's presidency was by no means the model of the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, in which civilian authority sets the goals of war and then allows generals to implement what they see as best military action to achieve these goals.1 Lincoln was an activist commander-in-chief who frequently "meddled" with his generals. He intuitively understood that since war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills, civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices. He recognized that what appeared to be the case at the beginning of the war can change as the war progresses, altering the balance between political goals and military means.

Perhaps the most important challenge Lincoln faced in the area of ​​civil-military relations was that, early in the war, his generals were pursuing the war they wanted to fight, not the one their commander-in-chief wanted them to fight. General George McClellan, who disagreed with many of Lincoln's policies, may actually have attempted to sabotage them. Lincoln knew he had to act to remind the Army of its constitutional role. He did so by disciplining Major John Key, aide to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and brother of McClellan's aide. Lincoln wrote to Key that he learned that, in response to a question from a fellow officer as to why the rebel army had not been sacked immediately after the battle of Antietam, Maj. Key had said, "This is not the game. The goal is that neither army has a huge advantage over the other; that both will be kept in the field until exhausted, when we will compromise and save slavery." Lincoln dismissed Key from the service, writing to him that "it is wholly improper for any gentleman to hold a United States military commission is to express such feelings, as Major Key has been shown to do.” McClellan finally recognized the danger of such loose talk on the part of his officers and men, and issued a general order demanding the subordination of the military to civilian authority. "The cure for political mistakes, if any, is found only in the action of the people in the elections."

McClellan's view of the war was not unusual in its early stages. Even Lincoln bemoaned the possible resort to "ruthless revolutionary struggle" against the South. But by the summer of 1862 he realized that unless the character of the war changed, the Confederacy would not yield. He concluded that the only way to save the Union was to up the pressure. The successful Union generals were those who adapted to changing circumstances.

One of Lincoln's great strengths as commander-in-chief was his determination to relieve failed generals. In 1862 he succeeded not only McClellan, but also John Pope to Second Manassas, Don Carlos Buell as commander of the Army of the Ohio (later renamed the Army of the Cumberland), and Ambrose Burnside, McClellan's successor, after the Fredericksburg disaster. In 1863 he succeeded Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac at the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign and William S. Rosecrans after his Army of the Cumberland was mistreated at Chickamauga.

Lincoln never allowed feelings or his personal opinion of an officer to get in the way of his assessment of the officer's military potential. He was willing to accept much from his generals if they would bring him victory. Lincoln once visited McClellan at his headquarters. McClellan was not present when the President arrived, so Lincoln waited. When McClellan returned he went straight upstairs even though he knew Lincoln was there. Some time later, McClellan sent an orderly to tell Lincoln that the general had retired for the evening. When his secretary, John Hay, criticized the President for allowing such an affront, Lincoln replied that "it would be better at this time not to regard etiquette and personal dignity."

wisdom and war

As wartime president, Lincoln saved the Union. It is hard to imagine that any of his contemporaries could have done what he did. Many were willing to tear the Union apart. Many others would have pursued policies that lacked any consent. As Lincoln remarked on numerous occasions, public sentiment is critical in a republic. Without them, legislators cannot pass laws and presidents cannot execute them. Lincoln could have avoided war by making another of the fundamental concessions politicians had made for several decades. But that would only have postponed decision day and made it unlikely that a Republican government could survive in North America or anywhere else.

Lincoln's wartime presidency teaches us that institutions, important as they are, will not save republics when threatened. It teaches us the need for prudence for successful democratic statecraft and that the citizens of a democratic republic respond to strong, principled leadership in times of crisis.

Lincoln set a high standard for wartime leadership. He rallied the nation's resources, appointed the agents of victory, set strategy, took the necessary steps to hold back those who wished to cooperate with the disunionists, and provided the rhetoric that moved the people. And yet he did these things within a constitutional framework.

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In our day we face similar problems to those Lincoln faced. Once again we face the constant tension between vigilance and responsibility as the US is the target of those who seek to destroy it. In any decision involving a trade-off between two assets, the costs and benefits of one alternative must be weighed against the costs and benefits of the other. At a time when the US once again faced an adversary desiring nothing less than its destruction, President George W. Bush correctly took cues from Lincoln, whose wartime presidency taught that caution dictates, that responsibility trumps vigilance in wartime. If those responsible for preserving the republic are not allowed to take measures to save it, there is nothing more to consider.

Related Content

  • Honest Abe: Abraham Lincoln and the Moral Character, FPRIfootnotes, Daniel Walker Howe, 6/2008
  • Audio/Video by Daniel Walker Howe on "Honest Abe: Abraham Lincoln and the Moral Character", 17.5.2008


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