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The President's Power to Wage War
Lincoln's words provide historical perspective

Nicholas Friedenberg
New Hampshire - April 11, 2004

      There are certainly members of Congress right now who feel a bit stung at having their vote for the resolution on Iraq brandished as public record. Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry is not least among them. The senator finds himself with the need to create a complex drama for the pacification of critics from the left. His vote, he says, was for the letter of the resolution, that the United States should hold Iraq to the demands of the international community. His is a tone of surprise and dismay at the course of events that followed. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Senator Kerry went so far as to say that President Bush had "f***ed up" the war in Iraq. He now says that he would approach the situation differently, though his details on the matter are lacking.

     I am totally unqualified to write an opinion piece on how to deal with Iraq or on whether Senator Kerry is fallible for having voted right along with the great majority of our federal legislative body to bestow upon President Bush the power to wage war without further approval. Nor do I much wish to malign any Democrat aiming to dethrone our current ruler. However, I cannot sit by an allow anyone to express surprise or shun responsibility for their vote on Iraq. Therefore, I will fall upon a trusted, exalted source of American political opinion in hopes of making clear that the Congress should have known better and, in fact, that it acted treasonously toward the spirit of the Constitution in relinquishing its power to declare war.

     I look to none other than than Abraham Lincoln for a perspective on presidential power. Here, I will reproduce a portion of his letter to William Herndon, Lincoln's former law partner, regarding President Polk's order to invade Mexico over dubious claims that the Texas Territory extended to the Rio Grande.

Washington, Feb. 15, 1848

Dear William:
     Your letter of the 29th Jany. was received last night. Being exclusively a constitutional argument, I wish to submit some reflections upon it in the same spirit of kindness that I know actuates you. Let me first state what I understand to be your position. It is, that if it shall become necessary, to repel invasion, the President may, 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 to be the sole judge.

     ... But to return to your position: Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose - and allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you "be silent; I see it, if you don't."

     The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood. Write soon again. Yours truly,

A. Lincoln

From Abraham Lincoln: a Documentary Portrait Through His Speeches and Writings. Don E. Farenbacher, editor. 1996. Stanford University Press, Stanford.



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