James M. McPherson hailed by LA Times

Historians in the News

James M. McPherson is the most important historian of the most important event to occur in these United States since the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution -- the Civil War.

Any new book of his is -- by definition, therefore -- an event, but "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" is one that speaks directly to a nation on the cusp of a momentous decision regarding its next president. Given the author's vocal disapproval of the war in Iraq, it's possible he elected to fill this obvious hole in the Lincoln portrait because the example of our greatest president is particularly instructive at this crucial juncture, though next year also happens to be the bicentennial of the Great Emancipator's birth.

Still, the question of what constitutes both a constitutionally licit and effective wartime presidency has taken on a special urgency over the last seven years. On the one hand, partisans of the "unitary executive theory" within the Bush-Cheney administration have pushed a dramatic expansion of the chief executive's powers, frequently in areas heretofore regarded as extralegal. According to this previously marginal line of thinking, for example, the president's rights to order torture, confinement without charges or trial, and warrantless domestic surveillance are "inherent" in his constitutional role as "commander in chief" and beyond scrutiny by the other, co-equal branches of government. On the other hand, this unprecedented extension of unchecked executive power has been accompanied by repeated deceptions of the electorate and, until recently, a generally incompetent prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this context, McPherson's study of Lincoln is particularly welcome -- and not only because the author is both a fine writer and a historian with an unmatched mastery of his era's original sources. McPherson also happens to be one of those scholars whose ingrained integrity simply precludes him from stacking the historical deck.

As the author points out, Lincoln is our only president whose entire tenure was circumscribed by war. The request to resupply besieged Ft. Sumter was the first official document to cross his desk after inauguration, and, though Robert E. Lee finally had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, several Confederate forces still were in the field the night Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, though two earlier chief executives had lived through wars -- James Madison in the War of 1812 and James K. Polk in the Mexican War -- the presidential role as commander in chief remained hazy and ill-defined, both politically and legally....

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