Lincoln's Presidency is important in the evolution of the American political system because of significant growth in the power of the executive branch of government, in many cases going beyond the authority given in the Constitution. After Lincoln the U.S. can be said to be a "nation-state" and has a national identity in a truer sense of the word. This lecture is not about Lincoln the person but about his impact on the office of President and overall effect on American politics.
Lincoln's presidency cannot be discussed with talking about slavery however, which truly defined almost every action taken as president, and of course animated the conflict that became the Civil War (1861-1865).
By the 1830s the vast disparity between the Northern and Southern regions of the country were obvious due to the effects of slavery. The Ohio River was conventionally regarded as the dividing line between North and South, as Tocqueville observed:
On both banks of the Ohio stretched undulating ground with soil continually offering the cultivator inexhaustible treasures; on both banks the air is equally healthy and the climate temperate; they both form the frontier of a vast state: that which follows the innumerable windings of the Ohio on the left bank is called Kentucky; the other takes its name from the river itself. There is only one difference between the two states: Kentucky allows slaves but Ohio refuses to have them....
On the left bank of the river the population is sparse; from time to time one sees a troop of slaves loitering through half-deserted fields; the primeval forest is continually reappearing; one might say that society had gone to sleep; it is nature that seems active and alive, whereas man is idle.
But on the right bank a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 345-46).
Later when the Civil War is being fought the North's industrial and agricultural superiority over the South will be decisive in its victory. However, it is important to remember the racial conditions in the North were not good although slavery had been long abolished by this time, again, as Tocqueville says:
Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.
It is true that in the North of the Union the law allows legal marriages between Negroes and whites, but public opinion would regard a white man married to a Negro woman as disgraced, and it would be very difficult to quote an example of such an event.
In almost all the states where slavery has been abolished, the Negroes have been given electoral rights, but they would come forward to vote at the risk of their lives. When oppressed, they can bring an action at law, but they will find only white men among their judges. It is true that laws make them eligible as jurors, but prejudice wards them off. The Negro's son is excluded from the school to which the European's child goes. In the theaters he cannot for good money buy the right to sit by his former master's side; in the hospitals he lies apart. He is allowed to worship the same God as the white man but must not pray at the same altars. He has his own clergy and churches. The gates of heaven are not closed against him, but his inequality stops only short of the boundaries of the other world. When the Negro is no more, his bones are cast aside, and some difference in condition is found even in the equality of death (Tocqueville p. 343).
Liberal enlightenment thinkers, like John Locke, wanted a strong legislative branch of government to restrain the power of the executive. A system of government set up like this was believed to better reflect the will of the people and to have the consent of the governed––even if in reality the representatives elected to the government were exclusively from the middle and upper classes. In reality, the power of the executive has grown in all democratic governments. Jefferson whose political philosophy stressed small government was the same president who made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the country. Jefferson and later Andrew Jackson in the 1830s both stressed the role of the president as acting more directly in the interests of the people. This coincided with the extension of voting to more parts of the population that had been excluded. The 1830s were the heyday of the Jacksonian era in American politics in which all remaining property restrictions upon the white male population were removed leading to a massive surge in electorate in the latter 1820s around the candidacy and later presidency of Andrew Jackson and his handpicked successor Martin Van Buren. In the 1824 election between Jackson and John Quincy Adams about 300,000 people voted in the nation. Jackson who had won the popular vote win over a 100,000 votes but with less than an electoral majority lost the election to the younger Adams in the House of Representatives led by Speaker Henry Clay–also a candidate in the same election, who later became Adam's Secretary of State, something which the Jacksonians denounced as a "corrupt bargain." By the 1828 election, after Jacksonian protest over the "corrupt bargain" led to many of the property restrictions being removed, over a million people voted for the first time in the nation's history and over 600,000 of those votes (twice the amount of the entire previous election) were cast for Jackson winning 56% of the popular vote and 178 out of 261 electoral votes. Jackson won by an even larger margin in the 1832 election over Henry Clay with over 700,000 votes and 219 out of 294 electoral votes to Clay's 49 (though votes picked up by the first major third party, the Anti-Masonic Party shortened Jackson's percentage of the overall popular vote).
However even by the 1830s the existence of the national Union over the individual states that made up the Union was still contended. In hindsight although it seems unbelievable that states would think they could dissolve the Union, but before the Civil War the existence of the Union was somewhat fragile, as Tocqueville says:
The Union is a vast body and somewhat vague as the object of patriotism. But the state has precise shape and circumscribed boundaries; it represents a defined number of familiar things which are dear to those living there. It is identified with the soil, with the right of property, the family, memories of the past, activities of the present, and dreams for the future. Patriotism, which is most often nothing but an extension of individual egoism, therefore remains attached to the state and has not yet, so to say, been passed on to the Union (Tocqueville p. 367).
After the Civil War, the unity of the nation is preserved but not through the rational consent of the governed but through military conquest.
Prior to that, the power of the Union over the states was fragmented and inconsistent:
If today the sovereignty of the Union was to come into conflict with one of the states, one can readily foresee that it would succumb; I even doubt whether such a struggle would ever be seriously undertaken. Each time that determined resistance has been offered to the federal government, it has yielded. Experience has proven that up till now, when a state has been obstinately determined on anything and demanded it resolutely, it has never failed to get it; and when it has flatly refused to act, it has been allowed to refuse (Tocqueville p. 368).
He goes on to question even the right to do so:
Moreover, a government, even if is strong, cannot easily escape from the consequences of a principle one admitted as the foundation of the public right which ought to rule it. The confederation was formed by the free will of the states; these, by uniting, did not lose their nationality or become fused in one single nation. If today one of those same states wished to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be hard to prove it could not do so. In resisting it the federal government would have no obvious source of support either in strength or in right (Tocqueville p. 369).
He concludes: "I therefore think it certain that if some part of the Union wished to separate from the rest, not only would it be able to do so, but there would be no one to prevent this" (Tocqueville p. 370).
This prediction made about 25-30 years before the war itself was almost accurate and suggests how close the Union came to dissolving during the Civil War. Tocqueville did believe however that the causes for keeping the Union together were strong. Besides the mutual interest all the states have in keeping trade going, Tocqueville points to "immaterial" factors, and here you can see his idea of mores (mœurs) anticipates what Chesterton will later call the "creed" and Bellah will call the "civil religion" of America or more critically what Louis Hartz called "irrational Lockeanism." Tocqueville points to the strong force of mores as providing a sense of national unity and forms the foundation and unifying force of what Bourne will later call "transnational" America:
I would never admit that men form a society simply by recognizing the same leader and obeying the same laws; only when certain men consider a great many questions from the same point of view and have the same opinions on a great many subjects and when the same events give rise to like thoughts and impressions is there a society.
Anyone taking the matter up from that angle, who studies what happens in the United States, will readily discover that the inhabitants, though divided under twenty-four distinct sovereign authorities, nevertheless constitute a single nation; and perhaps he will even come to think that Anglo-American Union is in reality more of a united society than some European nations living under the same laws and the same prince (Tocqueville p. 373).Or he goes on to say:
The Anglo-Americans regard universal reason as the source of moral authority, just as the universality of the citizens is the source of political power, and they consider that one must refer to the understanding of everybody in order to discover what is permitted or forbidden, true or false. Most of them think that knowledge of his own interest properly understood is enough to lead a man to what is just and honest. They believe that each man at birth receives the faculty to rule himself and that nobody has the right to force his fellow man to be happy. All have a lively faith in human perfectibility; they think that the spread of enlightenment must necessarily produce useful results and that ignorance must have fatal effects; all think of society as a body progressing; they see humanity as a changing picture in which nothing either is or ought to be fixed forever; and they admit that what seems good to them today may be replaced tomorrow by something better that is still hidden (Tocqueville p. 374).
However, a strong nation tends to entail a centralization of power. The main stimulant of the growth of presidential power was the increasing paralysis of the legislative branch of government, the Congress, who were deadlocked over the issue of slavery. Every time a state was added to the union which now had 33 states in 1861, slavery was brought to the forefront every time. In the 1850s, passage of laws like the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott case in the U.S. Supreme Court raised the already heightened tension over slavery by forcing the government to examine the moral consequences of supposedly impersonal and objective administration.
In the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 6th, 1857, two days after the inauguration of James Buchanan, the court ruled that African-Americans whether born in the U.S. or abroad could not become U.S. citizens. If we go back to the idea of transnational America we discussed in the beginning of class, the idea of citizenship is the crucial foundation on which this idea rests, and so when the court restricts the idea of citizenship so narrowly it is in effect an act of imposing Anglo-Saxon superiority, something which Lincoln ridicules in his speech on the Dred Scott case. The outcome of the case shocked even moderates like Lincoln who re-entered politics at this point, after serving in the Illinois state legislature, and one term in the House of Representatives.
We will continue this discussion next class.
Assignment Due 11/26: Choose a passage from Lincoln's speech on the Dred Scott case, interpret it and explain how it relates to class.
From the African-American Odyssey website, from the Civil War section, choose two parts, and summarize and explain them. If they include pictures, copy and paste the photo or image in your paper.