The Bulwark: “The Show Must Go On”
By Benjamin Kleinerman
“In 1864, our republic sat on the precipice of disaster. The Union armies were still fighting with the Confederates. Although the war turned in the North’s favor by the time of the election, it didn’t look good for Lincoln in early 1864. In fact, he contemplated and even made plans for his defeat. His opponent, George B. McClellan, made it clear that he would end the war and end the Union by letting the South secede if he won the election. In other words, the fate of the Union itself hung in the balance.
During the four years of his presidency, Lincoln had never been reluctant to use all of the constitutional and ‘extra-constitutional,’ or, depending on who you ask, unconstitutional, powers at his disposal. He interpreted his constitutional oath—to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution—as giving him all the authority that was necessary to preserve the Union. This included taking actions, otherwise illegal, such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus. He even ignored a federal judge who had ordered him to release those rounded up after the writ’s suspension.
All of which is to say, Lincoln was far from a blushing violet in his understanding of presidential power. And yet, despite his robust belief in presidential power to do all kinds of things no president before him had claimed, he never even considered postponing the election of 1864. Thus, the most momentous election in American history proceeded to take place in the midst of a war for the very existence of the Union…”
Benjamin Kleinerman is the R.W. Morrison Chair of Political Science at Baylor University. He also serves as the Chair of the American Political Thought section of APSA. He has published articles in Perspectives on Politics (APSA), American Political Science Review, Texas Law Review and several edited volumes including Nomos and The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Professor Kleinerman has also been invited to give talks at Yale University, the University of Notre Dame, Xavier University, Kenyon College, and the University of Cincinnati. His first book, The Discretionary President: The Promise and Peril of Executive Power (University Press of Kansas, 2009), has been reviewed in The New Republic and Political Science Quarterly. He teaches classes on both political thought and political institutions. Professor Kleinerman has also published on other subjects including literature and politics and American political history.
Professor Kleinerman is a JMC board member.
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