During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln assumed numerous presidential powers not specified in the U.S. Constitution.
On the Fourth of July 1864, Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan hovered anxiously near Abraham Lincoln as the president signed last-minute bills passed by the just-adjourned session of Congress. When Lincoln put aside the Wade-Davis Bill that stipulated stringent terms for reconstruction of Confederate states—including the abolition of slavery therein—Chandler urged the president to sign it. The most important provision in the bill, said the senator, “is the one prohibiting slavery in the reconstructed states,” Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, recalled in his diary.
Lincoln replied, “That is the point on which I doubt the authority of Congress to act.” Chandler was indignant. Alluding to the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, “It is no more than you have done yourself.” Quite true, responded Lincoln, but “I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.”
This breathtaking assertion of presidential prerogative left Chandler almost speechless. It should not have. From the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln had exercised unprecedented powers as commander in chief. Two years before this conversation with Chandler, the president had told a delegation of antislavery clergymen from Chicago that he could, if he judged it necessary, proclaim emancipation in Confederate states because, “as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.”
Whether the measures he took exceeded his constitutional authority was much debated at the time and is still controversial today. What remains certain, however, is that Lincoln vastly expanded presidential war powers and established precedents invoked by several of his successors in later wars.
Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states simply that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” But the Constitution does not define the functions and powers of the president as commander in chief.
In Federalist No. 69, Alexander Hamilton tried to reassure opponents of the Constitution, who feared executive tyranny, that the commander-in-chief power “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military forces, as first General and Admiral” of the nation. Wartime presidents James Madison and James K. Polk did not go much beyond this limited function.
Nevertheless, the brevity and vagueness of the Constitution’s specification of presidential powers, in contrast with its detailed listing of congressional powers and limitations thereon, bothered some observers. In 1840 a Virginia jurist and future secretary of state, Abel Upshur, deplored in A Brief Enquiry into the True Nature and Character of Our Federal Government “the loose and unguarded terms in which the powers and duties of the President are pointed out” in the Constitution. “In regard to the Executive, the [constitutional] convention seems to have studiously selected such loose and general expressions as would enable the President, by implications and constructions either to neglect his duties or to enlarge his powers.” In a case growing out of the Mexican War, the Supreme Court ruled that the president as commander in chief was authorized to employ the army and navy “in the manner he may deem most effectual to harass and conquer and subdue the enemy,” but added that this was a power limited to “purely military” matters.
Whether Lincoln was familiar with this decision is unknown, but his actions as commander in chief certainly went beyond purely military matters. The Constitution restricts to Congress the power to declare war. Yet, one of Lincoln’s first acts after the firing on Fort Sumter was to proclaim a blockade of Confederate ports.
In effect this proclamation was a declaration of war, and both Congress and the Supreme Court subsequently endorsed it as such. During these hectic days in the spring of 1861, Lincoln preempted congressional authority to raise and support armies. His proclamation of April 15 calling on the states for seventy-five thousand ninety-day militia to suppress the insurrection, to be sure, was based on the militia act of 1795. But on May 3, Lincoln issued an executive order calling for 43,034 three-year volunteers for the army and also increasing the size of the regular army and navy by 40,714 men. Both actions were an apparent violation of the Constitution, which in Article I, Section 7 grants Congress exclusive authority to “raise and support armies” and to “provide and maintain a navy.”
Because Lincoln believed that the federal bureaucracy, in these early days of the war, was still infested with Confederate sympathizers, he ordered Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to advance $2 million to three private citizens in New York to purchase arms and vessels. This order directly contravened Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which stipulates, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”
Lincoln made no secret of these actions, which he justified on the grounds that “existing exigencies demand immediate and adequate measures for the protection of the National Constitution and the National Union.” A year later, in response to charges of dictatorship, Lincoln insisted that “it became necessary for me to choose whether, using only the existing means, agencies, and processes which Congress had provided, I should let the government fall at once into ruin, or whether, availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the Constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it with all its blessings for the present age and for posterity.”
Lincoln did not define those “broader powers conferred by the Constitution.” At other times, however, he cited the commander-in-chief clause and the constitutional mandate that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” (Article II, Section 3). Later presidents also invoked these vague provisions to justify far-reaching executive actions—in some cases drawing on Lincolnian precedents. Lincoln believed that “by these and other similar measures taken in that crisis [of April– May 1861], some of which were without any authority of law, the government was saved from overthrow.” Lincoln had taken an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This larger duty overrode his obligation to heed a lesser specific provision in the Constitution—or, as a modern constitutional scholar, Michael Stokes Paulsen, expressed in an article in the Spring 2004 University of Chicago Law Review, “a part cannot be supreme over the whole, to the injury or destruction of the whole.”
Lincoln’s proclamation of May 3 calling for three-year volunteers and increasing the regular army and navy stated that he would seek retroactive congressional approval of these measures when Congress met in the special session he had called for July 4, 1861. The special session of the new Congress could not meet earlier because of the timetable of elections and congressional sessions in that age. No federal law mandated a single date for congressional elections. Most states held such elections in the fall of even-numbered years, as today. However, the first regular session of a new Congress did not meet until December of the following year— thirteen months later.
Seven Northern states thus held congressional elections in the spring of odd-numbered years—in this case 1861—making it impossible to schedule a special session before July. In the emergency precipitated by the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln therefore had to appropriate some legislative as well as executive functions.
When Congress did convene on July 4, Lincoln sent a message explaining what he had done and why. After summarizing the events leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter, the president explained that this attack left him with no choice “but to call out the war power of the Government; and so to resist force, employed for its destruction, by force, for its preservation.” Lincoln had written “military power” in the first draft but changed it to “war power” in the final version. Whether he did so because “war power” seemed stronger is unclear. Later in the message he again used the phrase: He had employed the “war power” as the only alternative to yielding “the existence of the government.”
The Constitution makes no mention of war power. The closest it comes is the clause that authorizes Congress to declare war. Both the phrase and the idea of presidential war powers seem to have been Lincoln’s own. In effect, by invoking an executive war power Lincoln preempted the prerogative of Congress to declare war. Two years later the Supreme Court upheld Lincoln’s position by the narrowest of margins (5-4) in the Prize cases.
These cases grew out of the navy’s seizure of ships trying to evade the blockade Lincoln declared in April 1861. Merchants whose ships and cargo were captured argued that because only Congress can declare war, the blockade was illegal before Congress in July declared the existence of hostilities. The majority of the Court ruled, however, that a state of war—especially a civil war—could exist without a formal declaration. The president has a duty to resist force with force; therefore, the blockade and related war powers exercised by Lincoln were within his authority as commander in chief.
The Court did not rule on the other measures Lincoln carried out before Congress met. But Congress had already taken care of that. In his message to the special session, Lincoln conceded that his executive orders calling for volunteers and increasing the size of the regular army and navy may not have been “strictly legal,” but they were a “public necessity” that he trusted Congress would “readily ratify.” Congress did so, passing almost unanimously a law that “approved and in all respects legalized and made valid…all the acts, proclamations, and orders of the President of the United States respecting the army and navy as if they had been done under the previous express authority and direction of the Congress.”
Despite congressional and Court endorsements of Lincoln’s actions, opposition to presidential “tyranny” was strong and grew stronger as the war escalated in scope and severity. The mildest of epithets provoked by Lincoln’s most controversial uses of his war powers— suspension of habeas corpus and emancipation—were “despot,” “tyrant,” and “dictator.”
After a mob in Baltimore attacked the 6th Massachusetts Infantry as it passed through the city on its way to defend Washington in April 1861, other Confederate sympathizers in Maryland tore down telegraph wires and burned railroad bridges linking the capital to the outside world. In response, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus between Philadelphia and Washington. Subsequent presidential orders expanded the areas where the writ was suspended until a proclamation of September 24, 1862, suspended it throughout the whole country—North as well as South—and for good measure authorized martial law and trials by military courts of “all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors…and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of the United States.”
Under these orders, an estimated thirteen thousand civilians were arrested and detained without trial for varying lengths of time, most of them in the border slave states where Confederates and guerrillas were numerous. But even in the North a number of antiwar Copperheads were arrested, and several were tried and convicted by military tribunals for draft resistance, trading with the enemy, sabotage, or other alleged proConfederate activities.
No other actions by the Lincoln administration—except perhaps emancipation—generated greater hostility than these apparent violations of civil liberties. One of the first arrests under the initial order to suspend the writ produced a confrontation between the president and the chief justice of the United States.
John Merryman was a wealthy Maryland landowner and lieutenant in a secessionist cavalry company that had torn down telegraph lines. Arrested and confined at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, he petitioned the federal circuit court for a writ of habeas corpus. The senior judge in this circuit was none other than Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who issued a writ ordering the commanding officer at the fort to bring Merryman before the court to show cause for his arrest. The officer refused, citing the president’s suspension of the writ. Taney immediately delivered a ruling denying the president’s right to do so.
The Constitution states “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” At issue was not whether the writ could be suspended but who could suspend it. Because this clause is placed in Article I of the Constitution, which deals with congressional powers, Taney insisted—citing precedents—that only Congress could do so.
Taney had no power to enforce his ruling, which Lincoln refused to obey. Because he was the author of the notorious Dred Scott decision, Taney’s opinions carried little weight in Republican circles. Lincoln had challenged the Dred Scott decision, and he challenged this ruling as well. In his message to the special session of Congress, the president included an elaborate defense of his suspension of the writ. He noted (without mentioning Taney’s name or position) that he had been admonished “that one who is sworn to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’ should not himself violate them.”
He had not violated the law, Lincoln insisted. Confederates in Virginia and secessionists in Maryland had surrounded and cut off the capital, whose capture would have brought the downfall of the government. Surely this met the constitutional criterion for suspending the writ. “Now it is insisted that Congress, not the Executive, is vested with this power,” Lincoln acknowledged. “But the Constitution itself, is silent as to which, or who, is to exercise the power; and as the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it cannot be believed the framers of the government intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress should be called together; the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.”
Even if this were not true, Lincoln averred a higher constitutional duty to do whatever was necessary to preserve, protect, and defend the nation and to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. “The whole of the laws which were to be faithfully executed, were being resisted, and failing of execution, in nearly one-third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution [because] some single law should, to a very limited extent, be violated? To state the question more directly, are all the laws, but one [the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus] to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”
Here we have the core of Lincoln’s concept of his war powers as commander in chief: His supreme constitutional obligation was to preserve the nation by winning the war. Any measures necessary to achieve that purpose overrode lesser constitutional restrictions—or, to quote Paulsen, “A part cannot control the whole, to the destruction of the whole.” A master of metaphors designed to make abstruse concepts clear to laymen, Lincoln used the analogy of a surgeon who amputates a limb to save a life.
Looking back in 1864 to events three years earlier, Lincoln asked in a letter to Albert G. Hodges: “Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through preservation of the nation.”
Most of those arrested and kept in “preventive detention” under suspension of habeas corpus were released after several weeks (including John Merryman) or months upon taking an oath of allegiance to the United States. Attorney General Edward Bates and two of the nation’s foremost lawyers wrote treatises upholding the legality of Lincoln’s action. The Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutionality of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ (Taney’s ruling on Merryman was filed in circuit court).
In March 1863, Congress finally enacted legislation giving the president explicit authority to do what he had been doing for almost two years. In the meantime, however, Lincoln’s proclamation of September 24, 1862, declaring martial law and authorizing military trials of civilians, generated a new uproar.
On May 5, 1863, Union soldiers arrested Clement L. Vallandigham at his home in Ohio. The leading Northern Copperhead, Vallandigham had repeatedly attacked the Lincoln administration and the war, calling for a cease-fire and negotiations with the enemy. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the recent passage by Congress of a conscription law had intensified Copperhead attacks. Reverses to Union arms in the winter and spring of 1863 had caused widespread demoralization in the North and in the army that imperiled the government’s efforts to carry on the war.
In this climate of opinion, Vallandigham’s rhetoric seemed a genuine threat to the cause of Union. A military court convicted him of uttering “disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government [to suppress] an unlawful rebellion.” The tribunal sentenced him to a military prison for the rest of the war.
These proceedings produced cries of outrage by Northern Democrats and expressions of anxiety even among Republicans. Governor Horatio Seymour of New York denounced the arrest and trial as “cowardly, brutal, infamous….It is not merely a step toward revolution, it is revolution….It establishes military despotism….If it is upheld, our liberties are overthrown.”
Lincoln had been surprised and embarrassed by Vallandigham’s arrest. But he decided that he must uphold the military commission, established under his own proclamation of the previous September. When Vallandigham’s attorneys applied for a writ of habeas corpus, the circuit judge in Cincinnati denied it on the ground that the president had suspended the writ.
In an effort to quell the uproar and tarnish Vallandigham’s martyrdom, Lincoln commuted the sentence from imprisonment to banishment to the Confederacy. Federal troops escorted Vallandigham under flag of truce to Confederate lines in Tennessee. Ohio Democrats nominated him in absentia for governor. Vallandigham eventually slipped out of the Confederacy on a blockade runner and settled in Windsor, Ontario, from where he conducted his gubernatorial campaign. He went down to a decisive defeat in October 1863 after Union military fortunes had taken a turn for the better.
Meanwhile Vallandigham’s lawyers appealed his case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial of a civilian by a military court outside the war zone, when civil courts were open, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ducked the issue by claiming lack of jurisdiction over military courts!
Nevertheless, the Vallandigham case became a cause célèbre for Democrats. Party leaders in New York and Ohio addressed formal protests to the president in the form of resolutions charging him with “a palpable violation of the Constitution” that “abrogates the right of the people to assemble and discuss the affairs of government, the liberty of speech and of the press, the right of trial by jury and the privilege of habeas corpus…aimed at the rights of every citizen of the North.”
These resolutions gave Lincoln an opening to make his case to the Northern people. On several occasions during the war, he used the medium of public letters for that purpose, as a modern president uses televised speeches and news conferences. On June 12 and 23, Lincoln addressed such letters to the New York and Ohio Democrats. He denied that Vallandigham had been arrested “for no other reason than words addressed to a public meeting.” On the contrary, Vallandigham’s antiwar activities were part of a broader effort by Confederate agents and their Copperhead allies to undermine the draft and encourage desertions from the army.
Draft resisters had recently murdered several enrollment officers. Vallandigham “was damaging the army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends.” Lincoln posed a rhetorical question that turned out to be the most powerful—and famous— illustration of his point. Noting that the official punishment for desertion was death (Lincoln spent many hours reviewing such cases and finding reasons to pardon deserters or commute their sentences), he asked, “Must I shoot a simpleminded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch the hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”
This “clear, flagrant, and giant” rebellion, said Lincoln, was precisely the contingency anticipated by the framers of the Constitution when they wrote the clause permitting suspension of habeas corpus. To make the case that wartime suspension or military trials would not create a precedent for peacetime violations of civil liberties, Lincoln offered one of his piquant metaphors. He could no more believe this, he wrote, “than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life.”
As for the argument that military courts cannot try civilians outside the war zone, Lincoln insisted that the whole country was a war zone. Draft resistance and attacks on enrollment officers took place in the North, and in some places Copperhead influence was so strong that no jury would convict those who tried to sabotage the war effort.
These letters were enormously effective. Hundreds of Northern newspapers published them. Half a million copies of the letter to New York Democrats were also published as a pamphlet. The timing turned out to be fortuitous, for within a few days of their publication, Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson and in Tennessee lifted the pall of Northern gloom and demoralization that had fueled antiwar protests against Lincoln’s “despotism.” These victories also helped convert many who had been skeptical or hostile toward Lincoln’s other contentious exercise of war powers—the Emancipation Proclamation.
In contrast with his early suspension of habeas corpus, for a year Lincoln resisted pressures from his own party to move against slavery. Although he was personally and morally opposed to the institution, he feared that premature action for emancipation would alienate Northern Democratic supporters of the war effort and drive border slave states into the Confederacy.
Nor did Lincoln initially see any way in which he could constitutionally declare emancipation. The Constitution did authorize suspension of habeas corpus in case of rebellion, but it did not say anything similar about slavery. When General John C. Frémont issued an order declaring martial law and freeing the slaves of Confederate activists in Missouri on August 30, 1861, Lincoln rescinded the order, explaining in a letter to the general on September 1 that it would “alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us—perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky.”
When Lincoln’s friend Orville Browning, a senator from Illinois, criticized the revocation of Frémont’s order, the president responded that a military commander had no power to confiscate slave property. “If a commanding General finds a necessity to seize the farm of a private owner, for…an encampment, he has the right to do so…because [it is] within military necessity,” Lincoln wrote in a letter to the senator. “But to say the farm shall no longer belong to the owner, or his heirs when the farm is no longer needed for military purposes” is unconstitutional. “And the same is true of slaves. If the General needs them, he can seize them, and use them; but when the need is past, it is not for him to fix their permanent future condition. Can it be pretended that it is any longer the government of the U.S.—any government of Constitution and laws— wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?”
The date of this letter is ironic: September 22, 1861, one year to the day before Lincoln did precisely what he said a general or president could not do— proclaim slaves in rebellious states “forever free” unless these states returned to the Union by January 1, 1863. They did not, so on that fateful day Lincoln proclaimed that “by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief…and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion [I] do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Lincoln’s apparently radical change of mind about his war power to emancipate slaves was caused by the escalating scope of the war, which convinced him that any measure to weaken the Confederacy and strengthen the Union war effort was justifiable as a military necessity. Lincoln may also have been influenced by a long pamphlet titled “The War Powers of the President, and the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation to Rebellion, Treason, and Slavery,” first published in the spring of 1862.
Its author, William Whiting, was a Boston abolitionist and one of the ablest lawyers in New England. Whiting’s pamphlet went through seven editions in little more than a year. On the strength of it, he was appointed solicitor of the War Department. Lincoln’s own legal mind grasped Whiting’s powerful argument that the laws of war, based on long precedent, “give the President full belligerent rights,” including the right to confiscate permanently enemy property being used to wage war against the United States.
Slaves were a majority of the labor force sustaining the Confederate war effort, and as property, they were certainly liable to such confiscation. “This right of seizure and condemnation is harsh,” wrote Whiting, “as all the proceedings of war are harsh, in the extreme, but is nevertheless lawful.” Once the slaves were “confiscated,” the government surely could not reenslave them.
When General David Hunter, commander of Union occupation forces in the coastal regions of the South Atlantic, issued his emancipation edict in May 1862, Lincoln rescinded it. This time, however, his revocation order contained an ominous hint to anyone discerning enough to detect it. “Whether at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government, to exercise such supposed power,” declared the president, “are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself” and not to commanders in the field.
By July 1862, the president had concluded that a blow against the Confederate war economy was indispensable to maintenance of the government. During a carriage ride to attend the funeral of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s infant son, Lincoln startled his seatmates, Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, with the announcement of his decision to issue an emancipation edict. As Welles later recorded the conversation, Lincoln said that an emancipation policy “was forced on him by the rebels themselves.” They had “made war upon the government…and it was our duty to avail ourselves of every necessary measure to maintain the Union.”
Emancipation was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be for us or against us. We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The administration must set the army an example and strike at the heart of the rebellion.”
Eight days later Lincoln informed the full cabinet of his intention. On Seward’s advice, however, he decided to withhold the proclamation until a Union military victory could give it legitimacy and force. Five days after the Battle of Antietam, and exactly a year after his disavowal to Browning of any power to do so, Lincoln published his promise to declare the slaves in rebellious states “forever free.”
Eleven months later, in another of his expressive public letters, this one originally to James C. Conkling, the president defended the constitutionality of his action in words that succinctly summarized William Whiting’s treatise on war powers. “The constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war,” said Lincoln. “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy? Armies, the world over, destroy enemies’ property when they can not use it….Civilized belligerents do all in their power to help themselves, or hurt the enemy.”
On another occasion, speaking to an antislavery delegation at the White House on April 7, 1864, Lincoln again used his favorite analogy—so graphically familiar in wartime—of a surgeon amputating a limb to save a life: “When the crisis comes, and the limb must be sacrificed as the only chance of saving the life, no honest man will hesitate.” Likewise, Lincoln pointed out, “if any local institution threatened the existence of the Union, the Executive could not hesitate as to his duty. In our case, the moment came when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live!”
As a war measure, however, the Emancipation Proclamation would cease to have any legal or military force when the war ended. The institution of slavery would still live even if slaves freed by the war remained free. Only a constitutional amendment could abolish slavery and make all slaves “forever free.” Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864 on a platform endorsing a Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. “Such alone,” wrote the president in his acceptance of the nomination, “can meet and cover all cavils.”
Ten days after the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment in April 1864, Lincoln went to Baltimore for the first time since he had passed incognito through the city three years earlier to avoid a suspected assassination plot. Now, in 1864, Maryland was about to abolish slavery by a state constitutional amendment. In one of his best—but least known—short speeches, Lincoln addressed residents of this border state, many of whom had condemned him as a tyrant who had robbed them of their liberties by “arbitrary arrests” and detentions of Confederate sympathizers.
Lincoln’s speech demonstrated his genius for animal metaphors—in this case a parable, which is an extended metaphor—that illustrated an important point about human affairs. “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty,” said the president. “We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”
For some in his audience, he explained, liberty meant the right to own property in slaves and the freedom to support a rebellion to preserve that right. For others, liberty meant freedom from being owned by another person. “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat,” Lincoln continued, “for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as a destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep is a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.”
In this striking fable, the shepherd (commander in chief) wielded his staff (war powers) to liberate the sheep (slaves) from the predatory wolf (slave owner). If many of these wolves were killed and others penned up for a time, that was the necessary price for the freedom of four million sheep and their descendants.
James M. McPherson is retired from the history faculty of Princeton University. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom. This article is adapted from This Mighty Scourge (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.