Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Loathing Lincoln and Executive Prerogative

I enjoyed a pleasant day Saturday in Chicago with John and Susan Barr.  We met at the Abraham Lincoln Bookstore, where John was being interviewed for a live "virtual book signing."  He was there to promote his new book Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present (LSU Press).  The other author in the same interview was William Blair, the author of With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press).  After the interview, we went to see a matinee performance of "In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story."  This was my second time seeing this play, which was the topic for a post earlier this month.

John shares my interest in Lincoln and Darwin and in the ways that their lives and ideas are connected.  John has taught a course at Lone Star College in Houston on comparing Lincoln and Darwin.

In thinking about the discussion at the bookstore and the play, I was reminded of one similarity between Lincoln and Darwin--that they have both elicited strong reactions of either love or loathing.  Lincoln has been revered by many as a mythic, even godlike hero.  But he has also been denounced as a deceitful opportunist and racist who exercised tyrannical power in ruining America.  Similarly, Darwin has been celebrated as a hero of modern scientific enlightenment.  But he has also been scorned as a scientific racist and atheist who subverted traditional moral and religious values in a manner that prepared the way for communist and Nazi tyranny and for degrading materialism.

If you go to John's website, you'll see his defense of Lincoln against the charge of being tyrannical in his use of the executive power.  As you can see in a previous post, I generally agree with what he says.  But unlike John, I do not accept John Yoo's interpretation of presidential power as including Lockean executive prerogative.  My argument is that the Constitution was written so as to specify the emergency powers of government in ways that would make it unnecessary for the President to step outside the Constitution to meet the demands of an emergency.  And I think that in almost everything Lincoln said, he was careful to find all of his power within the Constitution, and so he never claimed Lockean executive prerogative as power to step outside the Constitution.

One can make a Darwinian argument for such strict constitutional limits on executive power as a necessary check on the evolved propensity of those with political ambition to seek domination over others.  Some of my reasoning for such a Darwinian politics is elaborated here,.

I have also written here about Lincoln's classical liberalism as based on "the principle of self-government"--"each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as he in no wise interferes with any other man's rights."

1 comment:

Unknown said...


I didn't think my post agreed with Yoo:

Still, Yoo was being somewhat disingenuous here in that he imprudently saw relatively few, if any, constitutional limits on
executive power (i.e., the unitary executive), whereas Lincoln prudently stressed those same constitutional limits on his own presidential office. Americans should therefore remind themselves of Lincoln’s words of
the unparalleled nature of the crisis he faced in the1860s and resist the more boundless claims of his successors whenever they use the sixteenth president to justify their own civil liberties violations.

I agree with you. Hmmm. I hope that is clear.