Self-Restraint in the Executive

Self-Restraint in the Executive

By Christopher Nadon in The Weekly Standard


According to the popular-again Alexander Hamilton, “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” In light of this requirement and the failure of the Articles of Confederation to meet it, the authors of our Constitution took careful measures to create a powerful executive. After witnessing the expansion of executive rule, in both foreign and domestic affairs, over the past two administrations, we might well wonder whether the Founders went too far or created enough of the checks and balances they thought made our executive consistent with “the genius of republican government.” Or perhaps our experience confirms that however useful they may be, institutional restraints can never fully obviate the need for certain human virtues. No president before or after has pushed the limits of executive action to the extent Abraham Lincoln did. His understanding of the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation and its compatibility with republican principles of government illuminates the need for self-restraint in the executive as a supplement to the institutional separation of powers.

Lincoln loved republican government and he hated slavery. These passions combined to bring him out of political retirement when the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and left an opening for slavery to spread further into the territories. The act did not itself explicitly favor slavery. But Lincoln thought that its “declared indifference” masked a “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery” that “I cannot but hate.”

“I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself, I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Lincoln thought that prohibiting slavery’s extension into the territories was the minimum necessary for anyone to hold a reasonable hope that the institution was on its way to “ultimate extinction.” The maximum, of course, was emancipation and enfranchisement. But among the obstacles to achieving these goals stood the free institutions so admired by Lincoln. Duly ratified constitutional provisions need to be honored if free government is to endure. Thus Lincoln bit his lip, accepted limitations on federal interference with slavery in the states, and argued for compliance with the fugitive slave laws as a necessary evil.

Click here to continue reading.