restricted access Lincoln and the Constitution by Brian R. Dirck (review)
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Lincoln and the Constitution. Brian R. Dirck. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8093-3117-8, 184 pp., cloth, $19.95

This is a very useful little book for two principal reasons. First, it synthesizes a large body of recent Lincoln and Civil War scholarship and focuses the results on Lincoln's lifetime views of the Constitution and national power. Second, presidential power in a time of national emergency is a permanent issue for modern America. Commentators on current affairs, regardless of viewpoint, ransack history for useful evidence. In threats to the nation, response must always adequately counter threat, and on three occasions—in 1861, 1941, and 2001—the threats were orders of magnitude greater than anything previously experienced. Lincoln, as Dirck clearly and systematically explains, identified his particular challenge and found the constitutional tools to defeat it.

Dirck's Lincoln is a broad-constructionist Hamiltonian who revered the Constitution in the same way as many of his contemporaries. Lincoln also imparted to the words of the Constitution a moral reading. To him, the Constitution was not just a collection of procedures; but a guide for the exercise of power in the interests of what was good and just. This faith convinced him that the dangers of secession and war would not destroy the Union and, with it, the Constitution.

Lincoln also revered the Declaration of Independence for its bedrock principles of liberty and freedom. He regarded the declaration as a goal for the future and linked it to the Constitution as a means to secure that goal. This duality guided Lincoln through the slavery controversies of the 1850s, the secession crisis, and the war. He hated slavery in the prewar years but could find no constitutionally acceptable nor politically feasible route to its abolition. Only when slavery threatened the life of the Union, and Lincoln was president, did he conclude that his constitutional role as commander in chief gave him the authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The book is an admirable study of the interplay of principle and pragmatism. Lincoln compromised whenever success required it, as long as principle remained intact. He avoided confrontations, even in cases that warranted them, such as the efforts at partisan micromanagement by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He was also an astute judge of men.

The author carefully traces the evolution of Lincoln's views. He introduced an antislavery measure in the Illinois Legislature in 1837, but focused more attention on Whig economic policies than on slavery, which he considered essentially a local issue. The Kansas-Nebraska Act reopened the expansion question, thereby giving slavery a federal dimension. He now favored restriction on expansion but not federal emancipation. During the war, he adopted the "necessary and proper" concept even though the Framers gave that phrase to Congress and not the presidency. By the end of the war, he had moved closer to the position of the Radical Republicans with support for the Thirteenth Amendment and the possibility of the franchise for selected black men. [End Page 94]

The author's approach to the subject, and his basic narrative, is very sound. However, there are some rather remarkable errors, perhaps the result of efforts to condense, in the interest of the Concise Lincoln Library series. The Constitution did not ban the international slave trade after 1808 (17). Louisiana became a state before the Missouri Compromise, not after (19). The Three-Fifths Compromise did not arise from, nor did its authors establish, any calculus of racial equivalencies (25). The Compromise of 1850 did not extend the Missouri Compromise line west (21). George McClellan should never be referred to as "commander-in-chief of the Union army"—as much as he would have relished the erroneous promotion (89).

For many years, scholars cited states' rights as the principal cause of the conflict. In recent decades, the issue of slavery and race relations has moved to the head of the list. The 150th anniversary of the war has strengthened that perception in the public eye. Dirck maintains that emphasis. The book is a study of how race and politics intertwined in the years of...