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Context of 'February 15, 1848: Lincoln: Pre-Emptive War Powers Make a President a King'

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In a letter to his law partner, William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln disagrees with Herndon’s argument for preemptive war. “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure.… The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.” (Lincoln 2/15/1848)

President Abraham Lincoln warns that powerful corporations threaten to exert undue influence on American elections and upon society in general. In a letter, he warns of “a crisis approaching,” writing: “As a result of the [Civil W]ar, corporations have become enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow. The money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its rule by preying upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is concentrated in few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” (Geraci 2006 pdf file)

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discusses the parameters of the Bush administration’s push towards a “unified executive” and “imperial presidency” in the Washington Post by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s concerns over pre-emptive war. In 1848, Lincoln denounced the proposition “that if it shall become necessary to repel invasion, the President may, without violation of the Constitution, cross the line, and invade the territory of another country; and that whether such necessity exists in given case, the President is to be the sole judge.” Lincoln continued, “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure…. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of the British invading us’ but he will say to you ‘be silent; I see it, if you don’t.’ The Founding Fathers resolved to so frame the Constitution that not one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.” (Dean 2004, pp. 181)


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