In this season of all things Lincoln, from silver-screen homage to Idaho's territorial sesquicentennial celebration, Americans of every stripe and color have been immersed in the words, speeches and acts of the 16th president, widely, and I think rightly, considered our greatest chief executive. What was arcane has become commonplace. Who knew that Lincoln was a vampire hunter?
We're so fascinated with his words and ideas that those Lincoln speeches available to us are no longer enough. We're not content any longer to merely read the speeches that we can get our hands on; we want to read those that can't be found. Many citizens, including Idahoans, are eager to read his famous "Lost Speech," but that's impossible, since the speech was, well, lost.
Legend has it that Lincoln's "Lost Speech" was such a powerful anti-slavery speech that it propelled him into the national limelight. Delivered in 1856 at the Republican State Convention in Bloomington, Ill., that address was said to be so mesmerizing that reporters forgot to take notes, which deprives us of a transcript of The-Speech-That-Was.
Idahoans' admirable celebration of Lincoln includes the decision to rename the State Senate Auditorium as the Abraham Lincoln Auditorium. If you consider the eloquence of Lincoln's oratory and the compelling nature of his positions, as well as the steely logic that informed his opinions and his commitment to constitutional government, the decision to re-name the auditorium is rife with expectations for the quality of arguments and reasoning employed in defense of positions presented in an auditorium that bears his name. May we expect sharper reasoning and more informed constitutional debate?
Lost in the laundry list of lessons from the Lincoln presidency was his commitment to constitutional government. Caught in the clutches of America's gravest crisis, Lincoln wrote letters to friends and colleagues in which he declared his intention to win the Civil War, "in the shortest possible way, under the Constitution." Unlike most wartime presidents, who have shown little interest in the Constitution, Lincoln was at pains to exercise power in conformance with the supreme law of the land. He wasn't always correct in his interpretation of the Constitution, as seen in his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, but he was conscientious and alive to constitutional limits on the office of the presidency.
His famous address to a joint session of Congress on July 4, 1861, is illustrative. After calling Congress into session, he explained several of the actions that he had employed in response to the firing on Fort Sumter and the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln observed that some of his emergency actions, including the decision to call up troops and appropriate funds from the U.S. Treasury, were not "strictly legal," and that although he had exceeded the powers of his office, he had not exceeded the powers of Congress. Here, Lincoln acknowledged his usurpation of power and asked Congress to grant retroactive authorization, which would make his acts legal.
Like George Washington, Lincoln wanted to avoid the claim that he was a "usurper." As a consequence, he asked Congress to review his reasoning. If it determined that his actions were unwise, the lawmakers could punish him with censure or impeachment. If, however, members agreed that his actions were reasonable and necessary, they could approve of his actions after the fact, clothing them with legality. Congress agreed and provided the requisite retroactive authorization.
There is a lesson in this for our state and national leaders. Lincoln's exercise in humility, in subjecting his reasoning to the judgment of Congress and the American people, reflected his commitment to transparency and the Constitution. Lincoln was no dictator; indeed, dictators do not seek a review of their reasoning. Unlike recent presidents who have claimed expansive powers that exceed constitutional limits, Lincoln was committed to constitutional restraint. Though he was far from perfect, he didn't lose his constitutional compass.
Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the presidency.