Lincoln, Abraham Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Civil War, Lincoln assumed unprecedented powers for the executive branch to suppress the rebellion in the Southern states. To preserve the Union, he superseded traditional constitutional rights and expanded the president’s ability to take action without the approval of Congress or the Supreme Court.

Born in the then-frontier state of Kentucky, Lincoln was raised in the midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. With only a rudimentary formal education, Lincoln was self-taught, largely through close and attentive readings of the Bible, William Shakespeare, and the law. Attracted to politics, Lincoln joined the Whig Party and in 1846 was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served a single term and was most notable for his opposition to the Mexican War. After joining the new Republican Party, Lincoln became a candidate for the Senate in 1858, debating Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas in a series of debates that won national attention. Two years later, Lincoln was elected president, winning less than 40 percent of the popular vote. As a result of his election, South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, beginning the process that would lead to civil war by the spring of 1861.Presidential powersLincoln, Abraham;nominations to the CourtPresidential powers

The Civil War

Civil WarShortly after Lincoln’s inauguration, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. From April 12 until July 4, 1861, when Lincoln called Congress into special session, the new president assumed unprecedented powers to combat the insurrection. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus,Habeas corpus[Habeas corpus] ordered arrests without warrants, permitted detentions without trials and imprisonment without conviction, seized copies of newspapers, sometimes shutting them down, and generally placed military necessity above legal traditions.

These actions were soon challenged by the Supreme Court, specifically by its chief justice, Roger Brooke Taney.Taney, Roger Brooke Taney, appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1835, had been the prime mover behind the highly controversial decision in Scott v. Sandford (1857), which had negated congressional prohibitions against the spread of slavery in the territories. Now, in May, 1861, Taney delivered his opinion on a case involving John Merryman, a Southern sympathizer, who had been arrested and denied the right of habeas corpus by federal military authorities. Taney granted a writ of habeas corpus to Merryman and directed the government to honor it but noted that he had no power to enforce his ruling.

Such was to be the pattern for Lincoln’s dealings with the Supreme Court during the Civil War. Although the high court might disapprove of his actions, especially actions taken by military authorities, it made little attempt during the war to assert its authority. In fact, during the 1863 Prize Cases[case]Prize Cases[Prize Cases] decision, the court recognized Lincoln’s claim that the president could engage in hostilities without a specific congressional declaration of war.

The Prize Cases centered around four ships that had been seized by the Union blockading fleet. The ships’ owners claimed their property had been unlawfully taken because a blockade was by definition an act of war and only Congress could declare a state of war. The Court ruled that the Union blockade was appropriate even without a formal declaration of war because Lincoln was faced with the conditions of war, whether the technical details had been met or not. In this case, Lincoln’s actions and the Court’s decision helped shape future presidential uses of military power.

It was only after the Civil War, in the case of Ex parte Milligan[case]Milligan, Ex parte[Milligan, Ex parte] (1866), that the Court ruled against the assumption of judicial power that Lincoln and his generals had exercised during the conflict. In Milligan, the Court ruled that when civil courts are operating, civilians should not be prosecuted in military tribunals. This ruling had little practical impact at the time and, given the precedent set by Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War, was largely ignored later.

Lincoln’s Nominees

Lincoln’s five appointments to the Court were characteristic of his presidency. He nominated candidates who were likely to increase the strength of his appeal to pro-Union sentiment in the Northern and border states, and he favored men from the growing Midwest. His first Supreme Court nominee, Samuel F. Miller,Miller, Samuel F. was the first justice to be born west of the Appalachian Mountains and the first to live west of the Mississippi River. Three other nominees Noah H. Swayne,Swayne, Noah H. David Davis,Davis, David and Stephen J. FieldField, Stephen J. were carefully balanced between stalwart Republicans and pro-Union Democrats.

Perhaps Lincoln’s most significant, and controversial, appointment was that of Salmon P. ChaseChase, Salmon P. as chief justice on December 6, 1864. Chase, a former U.S. Senator and secretary of the treasury under Lincoln, had long nursed presidential ambitions. As chief justice, Chase continued his quest for the presidency, in 1868 taking it to the extreme of making himself available for both the Republican and Democratic nominations. The esteem in which the office of the chief justice and the Court as a whole are held fell as a result. Chase was in some part redeemed by his impeccable handling of the impeachmentImpeachment of presidents trial of President Andrew JohnsonJohnson, Andrew by the Senate in 1868.

Lincoln’s relationship with, and influence on, the Court was less through his appointments or the cases decided during his administration, than in what the Court tacitly allowed him to do. In the end, he asserted, in his quiet, homely fashion, that the executive department was permitted unprecedented powers during times of extreme crisis, such as those of civil war. The Court demurred, but in a fashion that was soon overcome and never reasserted. The result was an immense increase in presidential power and prerogatives and perhaps, the salvation of the American Union.Lincoln, Abraham

Further Reading
  • Abraham, Henry J. Justices and Presidents. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Silver, David M. Lincoln’s Supreme Court. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Chase, Salmon P.

Civil War

Delegation of powers

Habeas corpus

Military and the Court

Milligan, Ex parte

Presidential powers

Prize Cases

Speech and press, freedom of

Taney, Roger Brooke

War and civil liberties

War powers

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