Special Report

Schlesinger Fails History

A leading Democratic apologist distorts Abraham Lincoln's words to attack George W. Bush.

By 4.25.06

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Presidents wage wars under history's long shadows, and perhaps no shadow looms larger over President Bush's Global War on Terror than does that of President Lincoln's command in the Civil War. Rightly or wrongly, Bush's proponents point to Lincoln in support of the current war's specifics (say, military commissions) and generalities (say, Bush's persistence in the face of contrary public opinion). It should not surprise, then, that Bush's critics would seek to turn the Lincoln example against Bush. But in attempting to accomplish as much in Monday's Washington Post, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. mischaracterizes the history he purports to describe.

In the Monday Post, Schlesinger evaluates the current debate on Iran by warning of "ominous preparations for and dark rumors of a preventative war against Iran." Suggesting that an attack on Iran would come about not by congressional authorization but rather by "presidential prerogative," he cites then-Rep. Abraham Lincoln's 1848 letter to his law partner, William Herndon, on the matter of President James Polk's Mexican War.

In that letter, Lincoln responded to Herndon's defense of President Polk's attack on Mexican soil. In reply to Herndon's suggestion that a President is always justified in invading foreign soil when "necessary to repel invasion," and that the President -- "the sole judge" of whether such "necessity" exists -- need not consult Congress, Lincoln wrote, "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure." The President, Lincoln warned, could not be trusted to be the "sole judge" of such necessity: "You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the [foreign power] invading us' ... but he will say to you, 'Be silent: I see it, if you don't.'"

Schlesinger suggests that Lincoln's opinion, as stated in the 1848 letter, is directly relevant to the current Iran debate. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that "Abraham Lincoln would rejoice" if the "messianic" George W. Bush were to "forgo solo preventative war and return to cooperation with other countries in the interest of collective security."

To even the most poorly versed student of history, Schlesinger's distortion of the current Iran debate should give pause. In no way could warnings of the threat posed by Iran be called a matter of "presidential prerogative." Generally speaking, the Iran threat was in recent times flagged by Democrats as a means for criticizing alleged U.S. military overextension in Iraq, and today the Iran debate occupies both of the elected branches. Schlesinger could not seriously suggest that President Bush has embraced the military option with greater enthusiasm than Congress has. In no way could the reasonable observer take President Bush, pointing to the threat posed by Iran, as purporting to declare, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't." Schlesinger's attention apparently is focused so intently (as always) on Camelot that he boasts complete ignorance of contemporary events. But his reading of Lincoln proves no more accurate than does his reading of the Iran situation.

OF COURSE, SCHLESINGER MAKES it hard to discern precisely what his criticism of Bush actually is. At the onset of the essay, he criticizes "preventative war as a presidential prerogative" -- that is, preventative war undertaken without consultation of Congress. But later, in describing what he sees to be the first and second "Bush war[s]," he cites two wars whose commencement was authorized by Congress: the attacks on Afghanistan's Taliban and Iraq's Hussein regime. And his prescription -- that Bush abandon "preventative war" in favor of international cooperation -- is a statement in favor of international multilateralism over interbranch unilateralism as much as it is one of multilateralism over "presidential prerogative." After all, the "sorrows of death and destruction" cited by Schlesinger result from congressionally-authorized preventative war so much as they do from presidential preventative war.

If Schlesinger means to use Lincoln in criticizing preventative war without congressional approval, then, his point is for all purposes moot: President Bush has not suggested that he would commence military action without congressional approval. But if Schlesinger means to use Lincoln's letter to Herndon as criticizing preventative war in general, then his argument, though not moot, is baseless.

Lincoln made clear in his letter to Herndon that he disagreed with Herndon's suggestion that the President could, "without violation of the Constitution, cross the line and invade the territory of another country, and that whether such necessity exists in any given case the President is the sole judge." Such a view of the presidency, Lincoln concluded, violated the Constitution's separation of powers. For that reason, the letter culminated not with a discussion of preventative war but rather with a discussion of the Constitution's assignment of the power to declare war to Congress. The letter from which Schlesinger pulls Lincoln's words is therefore not a statement against preventative war generally, but rather one against presidential preventative war specifically.

LINCOLN'S POSITION ON PREVENTATIVE war in general is not easily discerned from the Mexican War debates. Lincoln was a vocal critic of Polk's actions, true. Lincoln demonstrated as much in another letter to Herndon two weeks earlier, where he noted that his vote in the House represented his opinion that "the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President." But the harsh words quoted by Schlesinger go to the latter point -- unconstitutionality -- not the former point -- necessity.

In that respect, the search for Lincoln's opinion on the necessity of preventative war in general is made more difficult by the Mexican War's peculiar facts: Polk commenced hostilities and then asked not for a declaration of war, but rather for a declaration that a state of war already existed. Congress passed such a resolution on May 13, 1846. Lincoln agreed with Polk that the President was empowered to respond unilaterally to foreign aggression on American soil; he noted as much in his January 12, 1848 speech on the floor of the House. Therefore, his criticism of the war's commencement went to the war's constitutionality -- did Polk inaugurate an illegal war without requisite congressional approval? -- as much as the war's propriety. Throughout the debates, Lincoln's focus on (as he put it in his speech) "the President's conduct in the commencement of this war" blurred the lines between the law of war and the morality and practicality of war. Schlesinger could have pointed to this nuanced debate, but instead he relied on the only words Lincoln put to pen in this debate that go, unquestionably, to the legal question alone.

Lincoln's approach to preventative action in defense of national security remained complicated throughout his public life. In the Civil War, for example, he was not as hawkish as were some members of his Cabinet. He disagreed with Secretary of State Seward, who wanted to declare war on Great Britain, Canada, and Russia if any of those nations refused publicly to foreswear intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. But at the same time, Lincoln's navy intercepted ships sailing from England to Mexico and seized even noncontraband on the ground that such supplies, shipped from neutral to neutral, would eventually reach the Confederacy by land. (A federal court accepted this justification during the war, but the Supreme Court ultimately rejected it the 1866 case, The Peterhoff.) Lincoln understood that at times national security requires that the nation project military force into foreign territory even when that foreign nation had not yet commenced hostilities against the United States.

To try to draw from Lincoln's Herndon letter's specific criticism a general criticism of preventative war is folly at best and dishonesty at worst. Neither is worthy of serious discussion of history. But for Schlesinger to cast all nuance and detail aside, to take a single letter which, on its face, deals only with a separation of powers issue, and to use it as the basis of a criticism of preventative war per se is astonishing.

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About the Author

Adam J. White is an attorney living in Arlington, Virginia.