Then again, those two presidents were faced with absolutely different circumstances. Abraham Lincoln had to save the Union. Woodrow Wilson had a moralistic mission, a vision for America, but he did so mostly with the consent of Congress. So the question can be asked if Lincoln had a better case of taking executive action than Wilson had. Wilson may have overstepped his bounds, but perhaps his ends justified the means. Lincoln really had little choice but to take on as much power as he could, because the Union needed a central figure, and whether he liked it or not, he had to be the figure, and the one left standing at the end.
But did he have much of a choice? Lincoln’s very inauguration as president was a major motivation in the secession of the Confederate states, and he could not give into them; he had to put himself and the Union in the strongest position possible. Many of his acts were allowed by the Constitution, and those that were constitutionally questionable he made on his authority as President of the Union (Milkis 154). But suspending the right to habeus corpus seemed a bit harsh. It likely would not have worked in today’s America. But at the time Lincoln felt it necessary. Lincoln himself in 1864 wrote these words concerning his actions:
“Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the nation.” (154)
War is never pretty, and the rules you would like to ideally follow cannot always apply during wartime because the status quo only really exists during peacetime. Lincoln could not have all sorts of people criticizing his administration in that critical situation, when the very nation was crumbling apart. Basically, his argument was that had to break a few rules in order to bring unity to what still remained of the Union in order to save it. That does not change the fact, however, that he was greatly hated by many Americans, who did indeed see him becoming a sort of “dictator.” However, he was the right man at the right time, a man who at any other time in history may not have been a very well-liked president. In hindsight, however, Lincoln is remembered now as one of the greatest of American heroes, and deservedly so. His leadership saved the existence of the United States of America - at least as we still know it today.
Wilson proved to be an effective wartime leader. His mantra for entering World War One was to “make the world safe for democracy” (Milkis 241). Being the first “total war” the world had ever seen, meaning that countries’ entire economies had to be devoted to the war machine, Wilson had some tough decisions to make, sometimes against the approval of Congress. However, it is very important to point out that even in those cases he still, whenever he could, did seek Congress’ consent before he took action (241). He regulated the entire economy through the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917 (242). Unlike Lincoln, however, by this time war had become too complex for him alone to be involved with closely, so he left many of the detailed aspects to members of his administration that he trusted with such things (242). He is remembered as a very good commander-in-chief, and though some of his moves were unprecedented, his actions were certainly effective in keeping the upper hand in the war effort. His arguments were valid.
The best example of the curbing of civil liberties in recent years would be the Bush Administration. While nowhere as harsh as those undertaken by former administrations, under the PATRIOT Act, that administration has done some fairly unconstitutional things, including holding people without charges for indefinite amounts of time. Yes, many of those prisoners may have indeed been terrorists, but under those laws the government could technically imprison any one they feel may be a threat to the administration. If this isn’t an abuse of power, it is as close as you can come to an abuse. Matters of national security are tricky business, though; they can be very difficult to argue about.
The ability for a President to suspend civil liberties in time of war is a discretionary matter. It depends on the nature of the particular war being fought. If a war is being fought on American soil, it is quite understandable, and in fact sometimes necessary to keep order through martial law and otherwise somewhat unconstitutional methods. Fortunately, thus far only the Civil War has really presented that problem. But motivating the country in a way like Woodrow Wilson did during World War One, completely towards the ideal of “making the world safe for democracy” is a completely different matter. However, though Wilson was a highly moralistic individual, he did not run away with his power; he did everything he could to stay within constitutional regulations.
When does the pushing of the limits become considered abuse of power, then? First of all, Congress would have to be in constant disapproval or direct opposition with the President. If the Congress, led by the President through popular opinion or not, usually work together with the President to get things done, then constitutionally usually things are alright. It is easy to say that as long as the ends are good then the means can be justified. But when the means lead to more turmoil and popular apathy against the government, then it can be said that the executive office has overstepped its constitutional bounds. Then again, most of the power of American government lies in the Congress. If they are not doing their jobs and letting the executive walk all over them, that is not a good thing, either. Legislative checks and balances exist for a reason. If and when a president bypasses the Congress for reasons not constitutionally justified, in a time where there is no true national crisis like the Civil War or major upheaval, then it could be considered a major issue. If an administration is reaching that point, there are those who would say so, and with the unprecedented actions occurring now, it would seem that the evacuation of that administration from office would be a very welcome thing for many Americans.
In American history, there has not yet been a truly runaway executive, but the Bush administration came awfully close to it. However, it is a very difficult situation globally right now. It is very true to say that America’s national security is in danger, as the world is becoming an increasingly turbulent place, and America is in a position where it needs to make its power known. But is it being done correctly? The consensus among most Americans is that things could be going much, much differently. What America needs is very strong leadership, and we will see how our current and future administrations lead by example.
Milkis, Sidney M., and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency. 4th ed. Washington DC: CQ Press, 2003.
Nelson, Michael, ed. The Evolving Presidency. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004.