I gave an absolutely fawning review of "Lincoln" on the air and I stand by it. A listener posting on Facebook argued I fell for the fantasy version of Lincoln. In fact, it's Steven Spielberg's warts and all portrait that I found so powerful. "Lincoln the tyrant" is very much present in "Lincoln."
The move has even Lincoln conceding he exceeded his constituional authority but felt the ends justify the means. Adam Whtie argues here that Lincoln did what he had to in order to save the Union. But White's argument goes well beyond that and argues that:
in April 1861. When Chief Justice Roger Taney ordered the government to free the pro-Confederate prisoners, President Lincoln ignored the order.
Lincoln argued that the Constitution obliged him to take those unprecedented unilateral actions, because to allow the rebellion to proceed in Maryland was to put the city of Washington, and thus the republic itself, at grave risk. “To state the question more directly,” Lincoln famously asked Congress later that year, “are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one”—the writ of habeas corpus—“be violated?” Lincoln insisted that his suspension of habeas corpus was legal in and of itself, but by those words he stressed that even an illegal suspension would have been constitutionally justified to preserve the government itself.
In those words, and in Lincoln’s conduct of the war’s early months, the president exemplified the paradoxical principle underlying even the Declaration of Independence: that our rights may be “unalienable,” but we ultimately must be “secure” by the very creation of a government capable of abridging those rights. And of the government powers erected by the Constitution to “secure the blessings of liberty,” the most important defense against existential threats is the president’s capacity to act swiftly, decisively, and controversially.
In short, Lincoln’s ability to free the slaves through the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 depended upon his ability to unilaterally act against the threats of 1861. Spielberg and his audience rightly exalt Lincoln’s fortitude in exercising the Constitution’s Article V amendment powers, but no less crucial was Lincoln’s exercise of the Article II executive powers. The road to the Thirteenth Amendment began not in January 1865, or even at Gettysburg, but at that moment in 1861 when President Lincoln resolved not to let “the Government itself go to pieces.”
“I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power,” Lincoln thunders on the screen. He was, and his successors are. The very power that threatens our liberty secures our liberty, and we must forever grapple with that contradiction.
And the party out of power will always howl when the Commander in Chief, in their estimation exceeds constiutional authority, which Lincoln clearly did. And while I generally agree with White's thesis, I think whether Lincoln had no choice other than to exceed his authority is debatable. And even if you concede he did not, those were unprecedented times; the country was split in two. It would be a mistake to suggest that such excesses simply come with the territory.