Mackubin Thomas Owens: Lincoln, Obama, and Bush

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis and a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. His study of Lincoln's wartime presidency will be published early next year by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia.]

... [M]ost of the reason the press portrays Obama as "Lincolnian" has to do with the former's rhetoric. These days, there is a tendency to dismiss rhetoric as somehow unimportant. But Aristotle wrote a treatise on rhetoric that all could read with profit. Rhetoric is particularly important in a republic because of the need for our governors to persuade the public. Lincoln's rhetoric was important in drawing a line concerning the rightness or wrongness of slavery and in stressing the importance of preventing the extension of the institution into the Federal territories. It was also important during the war in linking the sacrifices of the soldiers to the survival of republican government.

But his actions were important as well. Without the steps he took to win the war, Lincoln's rhetoric would have been hollow. And when it comes to actions, the true parallel between Lincoln and a contemporary is between the sixteenth president and George Bush. It was Bush, after all, who arguably had to confront a crisis most like the one that Lincoln faced from 1861 to 1865: a rebellion "too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings."

Among the problems that Bush and Lincoln both faced included the decision to go to war in the face of substantial domestic opposition, achieving a balance between "vigilance and responsibility" when it came to security and civil liberties, dealing with domestic opposition to the war that often crossed the line from dissent to obstruction, and the relationship between policy and military action and its corollary, civil-military relations.

Consider just two of the issues above: domestic opposition to the war and the issue of balancing civil liberties and security. During the Civil War, the so-called Peace Democrats or "Copperheads" actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.

As president, Bush confronted Democratic opponents of the Iraq war who echoed the rhetoric of the Copperheads. The latter described Lincoln as a bloodthirsty tyrant, trampling the rights of Southerners and Northerners alike. Today's Copperheads described Bush as the world's worst terrorist, comparable to Hitler. But the actions of the Copperheads of today went far beyond unpleasant words. Antiwar Democrats' expressions about "supporting the troops" rang hollow in light of Democratic efforts to hamstring the ability of the United States to achieve its objectives in Iraq until the success of the surge took the issue off the table.

The parallels between Lincoln and Bush regarding civil liberties during a period of emergency are even more striking. In June of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Erasmus Corning, who had sent him the resolutions of the Albany Democratic convention censuring the Lincoln administration for what it called unconstitutional acts, such as military arrests of civilians in the North. This letter remains the best articulation of the problems that a democratic republic faces when confronted by a crisis that threatens the very existence of that republic.

The essence of Lincoln's argument was that certain actions that are unconstitutional in the absence of rebellion or invasion become constitutional when those conditions exists--in other words, "that the Constitution is not in its application in all respects the same in cases of rebellion or invasion involving the public safety, as it is in times of profound peace and public security."

In December of 2005, President Bush issued his equivalent of the Corning letter. In his weekly address to the nation, the president, speaking live from the Roosevelt Room, addressed the failure of the Senate to renew the Patriot Act, which passed that body 98-1 in the wake of 9/11, and forcefully defended his actions in authorizing the National Security Agency "consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations."

He pointed out that the Justice Department and NSA's top legal officials had reviewed the activities permitted under this authorization and that the executive branch had briefed congressional leaders of both parties more than a dozen times on this authorization and the activities conducted under it.

"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists," the president said. "It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties. And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."...

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More Comments:

Maurice Isserman - 12/26/2008

This tells me all I need to know about Mr. Owens' alleged scholarship:


Between 1985 and 2002, FPRI received over $4 million from numerous foundations, including the following right-wing foundations: Lynde and Harry Bradley, John M. Olin, Earhart, Smith Richardson, Sarah Scaife, and Carthage, which is one of Scaife family foundations."

Michael Green - 12/26/2008

To liken today's Democrats to Civil War era Copperheads is almost as big an insult to me and to other Democrats as it is to anyone with a brain who has studied history and therefore knows that the ideology of the Democratic party, and especially of Copperheads, during the Civil War is farther removed from the modern Democratic party than Mr. Owens or those for whom he butchers historical accuracy and serves as a slavering lackey--i.e., the National Standard and the presidential and vice-presidential war criminals he and they so ardently defend--from reality.