President Lincoln’s strong resolve to reunite the union catalyzed a sharp shift in his beliefs regarding the weight of power in the executive branch, helping Lincoln strengthen the office of the Presidency like never before. This set a precedent for future Presidents, notably Theodore Roosevelt, whose legislation on big business and “speak softly and carry a big stick” methodology to foreign relations, while thoroughly of his own design, most certainly finds its roots in the empowered President Lincoln.
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Lincoln entered the Presidency rooted in the beliefs that the executive branch’s power came second to the legislative, as stated in the Constitution. His “immediate predecessors—Democrats Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan—had set the pattern for a weak executive, conceiving their roles as little more than clerks... who either approved or disapproved legislation developed from Congress’s agenda,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 175).
However, following the secession of seven southern states immediately after Lincoln’s election, his focus became reuniting the union: “he sought to reassure his fellow countrymen and to prevent more states from seceding,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 175). To accomplish this, Lincoln was headfast in his decisions, often reaching beyond traditional executive power and, in effect, overriding the other branches of government. These decisions were extremely controversial: Groiler Encyclopedia says, “As a commander in chief Lincoln was soon noted for vigorous measures, sometimes at odds with the Constitution.
Three controversial decisions Lincoln made include the implementation of a military draft, suspension of habeas corpus in many regions, and finally, a plan to end slavery in his 1862 annual message to Congress. All of these events were controversial and Lincoln was accused of ignoring the Constitution in many instances, yet he justified it to many by claiming that it was necessary “in the name of ‘popular demand and public necessity,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 177).
In essence, Lincoln’s power was “a funneling of powers, delivered to other branches of government in peacetime, into the presidential office in wartime. He was centralizing authority,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 178). In text titled “A Constitutional History of the United States,” author Andrew McLaughlin analyzes constitutional problems of the civil war, saying that “The justification for such a step must be the existence of actual disorder or a condition which seriously threatens civil authority. Herein lies the debate, should a President have the moral right to break the Constitution in order to save it? One of the first policies to centralize the Executive Branch’s power was the implementation of a military draft in the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency: “On May 3 Lincoln issued a proclamation summoning 42,034 volunteers to serve for three years; he also called for an increase of the regular army by the addition of 22,714 officers and men, and for the enlistment of 18,000 seamen,” (McLaughlin, 1935, 615).
This proves to be controversial because it was “employing a war power without a declaration of war,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 177). Lincoln’s claim was that “he was constitutionally designated as commander-in-chief and that the military peril to the Union made such actions necessary,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 177). The draft caused riots in New York, as people vehemently opposed its institution. Another instance of policy that was implemented with this newfound executive power was that he suspended the right of habeas corpus in many regions.
According to text published in the journal titled “History Today,” habeas corpus “makes the force at the disposal of the chief executive subject to regulation by the courts. With it, a judge can demand that a prisoner be brought before him to evaluate whether the prisoner's detention is legal. Without it, an unlawfully incarcerated individual has no legal remedy. ” The suspension of this right is one of the most controversial aspects of the Lincoln Presidency: “If Lincoln did not constitutionally have the power to uspend habeas corpus, then by doing so he fundamentally altered the freedom of American citizens,” (Kleinfeld, 1997, 24).
In defending accusations mostly made by Democrats that he was stripping Americans of their civil rights and liberties, Lincoln claimed that he didn’t even believe a law was violated: “The Constitution, he argued, does not expressly prohibit the president from suspending the writ, and it is unreasonable that a danger should run its course until Congress can be assembled,” (Kleinfeld, 1997, 24). This defense was often used in Lincoln’s behalf.
According to Brinkley and Dyer, the issue was “time and the necessity of acting quickly... ” They also explain how it was often claimed to simply be efficient for the centralized power in the executive branch: “The presidency carried with it a unity of office which allowed for swift action impossible for the legislature,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 178). Congress agreed to this justification for Lincoln’s centralized power; they “retroactively endorsed his actions, declaring them ‘legalized and made valid,’ as if Congress itself had enacted them. ” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 178).
The final instance of a decision made using Lincoln’s strengthened Presidential powers was a plan delivered to Congress in his 1862 address to its members. In this annual address, Lincoln proposed that Congress provide bonds to pay slave states that abolished slavery before 1900. He also, in the same address, proposed that Congress give money to help the colonization of those former slaves who chose to move. This incentive to hasten the end of slavery was thoroughly Lincoln’s design, and “was an unusual display of executive decision to Congress,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 181).
These are just a few of the examples detailing the centralization of power to the executive branch that occurred during Lincoln’s administration. He effectively transformed the institution of the Presidency, as many presidents after him have kept up the centralization of power as tradition. An example of a later president who also ran his administration in this fashion is Theodore Roosevelt. Like Lincoln, Roosevelt presided over the nation at a crossroads: the “divide between the nineteenth century and the wentieth, between the old presidency and the modern chief executive, between the old state and the new,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 268).
Following in Lincoln’s precedent, Roosevelt’s decisions over the regulation of big business in this fledging industrial nation, as well as his ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ methodology to foreign policy, thoroughly illustrate this strong funneling of power into the office of the Presidency. At the beginning of Roosevelt’s administration, the big business era was just beginning. The United States had turned away from the isolationism which preceded the Spanish-American War. Now a world power with quickly expanding foreign markets, the United States was considered a major industrial nation,” (Business and Economy in the 1900s, 1997).
With this industrialization came consequences and fears regarding the growth of big business and power of large corporations. The growth of big business and its corresponding fears became the central issue to Roosevelt’s domestic policy. Roosevelt implemented multiple laws in hopes of regulating large corporations, most notably his antitrust measures.
According to a text titled Business and Economy in the 1900s, “... it was not until the Roosevelt administration that cases were pursued against business owners and labor unions. ” Most notably was the Northern Securities case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the company had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, which had been on the books for decades. Brinkley and Dyer explain that, “Although Roosevelt did not want to eliminate large corporations, he used antitrust prosecutions to enhance the authority of the executive branch,” (274).
Just as Lincoln used policy to enhance his powers as president, so did Roosevelt: over 40 antitrust legislations were filed under Roosevelt’s presidency. Still focusing on the domestic issue of big business regulation, Roosevelt’s creation of The Bureau of Corporations was another notable event. After Roosevelt’s introduction of the Bureau in 1903, it was created by Congress to “investigate and publicize the behavior of giant corporations,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 275). This Bureau is what helped investigate the companies and then catalyzed legislation, furthering antitrust laws made under Roosevelt’s administration.
Also parallel to the central power during Lincoln’s presidency, the president helped validate and get more power to the Executive Branch when he positioned himself to look like “the representative of a public frightened and angry over a new threat from business,” (Brinkley and Dyer, 2004, 275). This is parallel to the power Lincoln managed to obtain when positioning himself to look like a representative of a frightened public during the beginnings of the Civil War, angry over slavery issues. Both men used their positions and the time in history to be seen in the same light.
In terms of foreign policy, Roosevelt strived to make the United States’ power reach global heights. His “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach to foreign relations reflected that the way the country handled its foreign relations depended entirely on the President, not Congressional legislation. An example of this includes events that occurred following his December 1904 State of the Union address, in which Roosevelt reinforced his ‘Big Stick Policy” by saying that “chronic wrongdoing by Latin American states would compel the United States ‘to an exercise of an international police power,’” (Big Stick and Dollar Diplomacy, 1998).
This policy, reminiscent of the Monroe Doctrine, is known as the Roosevelt Corollary. It was first put into effect just weeks later, when Roosevelt negotiated a treaty with the Dominican Republic saying that the US would manage the Dominican Republic’s foreign debts. Mirroring events of the Lincoln administration, “when the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, the president carried it out by executive order, a move that touched off much criticism at home,” (Big Stick and Dollar Diplomacy, 1998).
In this case, Roosevelt used his Big Stick policy to pass legislation rejected by the Congress, just because he was President and his office had the power to do so. It is much like Lincoln’s implementation of policy without Congressional approval during the Civil War. To conclude, President Lincoln helped to strength the power of the Executive Branch like never before, helping give the Presidency more control of both domestic and foreign relations.
At a delicate crossroads in American history—the Civil War—Lincoln used the unique time to gain power through instatement of the draft, suspension of habeas corpus, and his proposals of bills to Congress. Following this precedent, President Theodore Roosevelt, also at a crossroads in United States history at the beginning of industrialization and big business, used similar tactics to gain and retain centralized control in the Executive branch through his trust-busting efforts and legislation on big business at home, as well as his “Big Stick” policies abroad.
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