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A House Divided
Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 04/27/2011

Harold Holzer: What legal authority did President Lincoln have to call up 75,000 troops to defend Washington and to order the blockade of most Southern ports?

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

Established 18th century law arguably gave Abraham Lincoln adequate power to confront the gravest crisis in the 19th century by calling for volunteers after the attack on Fort Sumter. The other steps he took, however--appropriating federal funds for the defense of the Union and ordering a blockade to choke off supplies to Southern ports--were far less firmly grounded in legality and precedent, and no doubt Lincoln knew it.

That may be precisely why he did what he did when he did it. Lincoln subsequently earned much credit in history by calling Congress back into session on July 4, at which time he offered a majestic explanation of his actions to confront what he called “a People’s contest.” Of course, the House and Senate obligingly ratified his every move. But certainly he might have ordered the legislators back to Washington earlier had he really wanted their approval (much less their debate) before he had adequately deployed his military response. Shades of Libya, 2011!

No President before or since ever had a more liberal and elastic view of the so-called “war power.” But no other President ever confronted such a crisis, either. Lincoln may not have had the right to do all he did after Sumter, but he exercised that right anyway, and probably saved Washington and the Union by doing so.

By Harold Holzer  |  08:00 AM ET, 04/27/2011

Categories:  Views, 150th anniversary, 150th anniversary

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