"In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man; every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case; that they all are imitable, all alterable." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
What Would Abe or George Do?
In recent years, evangelical Christians have been fond of the abbreviation WWJD?, which stands for 'What Would Jesus Do?' That is, in the situation in which one finds oneself, how can one act in accordance with the life and teachings of Christ?
In that same spirit, let us consider the administration of George W. Bush. A local, standard-issue conservative talk radio host'who, naturally, thinks quite highly of both Bush and Abraham Lincoln'asked on Thursday, Lincoln's birthday, what Lincoln would have done had he become president in 2001 as compared to what Bush has done. Since this is Presidents' Day, let us expand upon that to ask not only 'What would Lincoln do?' but also 'What would Washington do?' (and by Washington I refer to the father of our country, not that abomination on the shores of the Potomac which bears his name).
First let's consider domestic policy not related to war.
Under Bush we have seen massive increases in spending, dwarfing the increases under Bill Clinton and rivaling those under Lyndon Johnson. We have also seen, as a result, the transformation of a (pseudo-)surplus in the federal budget into ever-growing deficits. In addition, new protective tariffs to help out domestic steel producers at the expense of steel consumers have been enacted, only to be repealed under international pressure. Inevitably, too, there have been increases in the regulatory state, as any glance at the Federal Register Watch archive will demonstrate.
Lincoln , too, was a big-government Republican, a clearly redundant description in those days and generally redundant today as well. In 1832 he said, 'My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman's dance. I am in favor of a national bank . . . in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff.' His national bank, combined with the Legal Tender Act of 1862, made possible a government monopoly on currency, which in turn became nothing but fiat currency, making vast government debt not only possible but probable. His 'internal improvements,' which consisted of government subsidies for railroads and other private enterprises, cost taxpayers millions of dollars to accomplish the same thing that entrepreneurs who stayed off the government's gravy train were able to accomplish for a fraction of the cost and without the vast infringements on people's property rights that were (and are) the norm for subsidized projects. (Notably, Lincoln's experiences with internal improvements as a member of the Illinois legislature, in which the waste and corruption were so rampant that the state ultimately forbade subsidies to private business by constitutional amendment, did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for them as president, just as the entire country's experiences with government spending over the past century have done nothing to discourage Bush from pursing ever greater expenditures.) The tariffs of which Lincoln was so enamored were, of course, the primary cause of the South's secession because they bled the South dry to keep Northern manufacturers in business. Lincoln, unlike Bush, refused to back down on his tariffs even if doing so would have helped to preserve the Union, the very thing which he claimed to want above all else.
Washington , it must be noted, faced a somewhat different set of circumstances. He did, after all, take office at a time in which the federal government had no power, so anything he did would have increased its power. Much of the legislation he signed centered on getting the government up and running. Washington , though clearly sympathetic to the Federalists, was careful to balance the Hamiltonian desire for a strong central government against the Jeffersonian suspicion of centralized power. As one of the framers of the Constitution, Washington examined every bill that crossed his desk in light of the powers delegated to the federal government in that document. He vetoed two bills because he believed they did not pass constitutional muster. It is hard to imagine either Lincoln or Bush stopping for even a moment to consider whether a bill he was about to sign met the exacting standards of the Constitution. Washington did believe a national bank to be constitutional, though not, again, without carefully considering the matter; and this first Bank of the United States did help in paying off debt incurred by the states during the revolutionary period. Washington was, indeed, quite frugal with taxpayers' money, taking no salary beyond that needed to cover his expenses.
Moving along in our comparisons, let us now consider the policies that have been enacted since, and supposedly because of, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 .
Bush's immediate reaction to the attacks was to announce that the United States had been attacked for its freedom rather than to reassess U.S. foreign policy to see if it might, perhaps, have been a motivating factor for the terrorists. Shortly thereafter, he signed into law the now infamous PATRIOT Act, the federal takeover of airport security, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Those who opposed any of these policies have been labeled traitors because, as Bush has said more than once, 'You're either with us or you're with the terrorists.' In addition, he launched two wars, one on Afghanistan and one on Iraq . For neither war did he obtain a congressional declaration of war, as required by the Constitution. While Afghanistan had at least some plausible connection to 9/11 via the Taliban, Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with it. Furthermore, while the war on Iraq was ostensibly undertaken to rid the world of the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, when those WMDs failed to materialize in the aftermath of the war, Bush changed the rationale of the war to the liberation of the Iraqis and the establishment of democracy in the Middle East .
WWLD? Quite possibly Lincoln would have done precisely the same things. Rather than publicly acknowledge that his determination to enforce the tariff at all cost was what had torn the country asunder and led to the firing on Fort Sumter'although at least Lincoln was wily enough to maneuver the enemy into firing the first shot, something Bush did not bother to do in the case of Iraq'Lincoln continued to insist on his tariff. In fact, if there was one principle on which Lincoln was absolutely inflexible, it was enforcing the tariff. In his first inaugural address, he stated categorically: 'The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion'no using force against, or among the people anywhere.' Thus, while Lincoln claimed to have been waging war to save the Union , he would not compromise in the slightest if doing so could have prevented war in the first place. This is little different from Bush's refusal to adopt a less interventionist foreign policy even though U.S. intervention in the Middle East is the plainly stated reason for Osama bin Laden's terrorist attacks against U.S. interests. Instead, like Lincoln sending supplies to Fort Sumter , a customs house, Bush not only continued the interventionist foreign policy but also extended it to takeovers of two countries.
Lincoln , too, was fond of cracking down on domestic dissent in the guise of cracking down on 'traitors' and 'insurrectionists.' Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus, shut down dozens of Northern newspapers that opposed his policies, deported a congressman who spoke out against him, imprisoned more than 13,000 people for opposing him, ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stopped free elections in Maryland, and tried hundreds of people before military tribunals. When the nation's first income tax bill'a bill which Lincoln gladly signed'came up for debate in Congress, dissenting congressmen were branded as traitors. War meant total support for the president in charge; anything less amounted to treason. Bush, having at least token political opposition in Congress, has not been quite as successful in cracking down on dissent as Lincoln , but it isn't for lack of trying.
Lincoln 's war itself violated the Constitution in two specific ways. First, it was carried out to prevent states from leaving a confederation which they had voluntarily created and which would not have existed had the states not existed first. Since there was nothing in the Constitution to prohibit states from seceding, Lincoln 's act of keeping them in the Union by force was inherently unconstitutional. Second, Lincoln called up the state militias to invade the South without so much as consulting Congress, let alone obtaining a declaration of war, another constitutional no-no.
The rationale for Mr. Lincoln's war on the Confederacy changed during the course of the war, much as the rationale for Mr. Bush's war on Iraq has. Lincoln 's original stated reason for pursuing the war was to preserve the Union . When the outcome of the war began to look increasingly in doubt, and when it looked as if the European powers might intervene on the side of the Confederacy, Lincoln decided to switch from the more mundane explanation to the more idealistic one, namely, ending slavery. So it was that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a purely political document which freed the slaves only in areas not controlled by the Union army'a proclamation which Lincoln termed purely a 'war measure' intended to make him appear to be pursuing a righteous cause. The proclamation did the trick, keeping Europe out of the war and ensuring Lincoln 's place in history as the Great Emancipator; no doubt Bush would like similarly to be remembered as the emancipator of Iraq and, perhaps, the entire Middle East .
WWWD? Though similar circumstances did not occur during his administration, certain conclusions can be drawn as to how Washington would have responded to 9/11.
The first conclusion is that Washington would have recognized that U.S. interventionism was the primary cause for the attacks and would have set about scaling back our government's meddling abroad. It was Washington, after all, who famously cautioned against 'entangling alliances' and either 'permanent antipathies against particular nations' or 'passionate attachments for others.' It was Washington who exhorted the young nation to '[o]bserve good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.' And it was Washington who, having benefited from the assistance of the French in the Revolutionary War, set about severing that same alliance when it became clear that America might be drawn into France 's wars.
As one who carefully weighed all actions of the federal government against the Constitution he had helped frame, Washington would most certainly not have countenanced measures that infringed upon the rights delineated in that document. He would not have found any justification in the Constitution for an invasion and occupation of a nation that had not first attacked the U.S. ; nor would he have sent troops into battle without first obtaining a congressional declaration of war. In addition, as one who had recently fought a war to throw off a colonial government, he would not have then turned around and imposed a colonial government on another country. Also, as the apocryphal story of young George Washington and the cherry tree attests, Washington 's honesty was the stuff of legend. If the father of our country had felt the need to lead the country into war, it is safe to assume that he would not have done so under false pretenses or changed the rationale halfway through the war.
Thus, the answer to 'What would Lincoln do?' turns out to be more or less the same as the answer to 'What has Bush done?', while the answer to 'What would Washington do?' is far different. This is, however, what one would expect, since Lincoln was truly the first modern president, one who ignored both prudence and the Constitution in pursuit of his own power, while Washington set the standard for prudence and careful consideration of the Constitution in all that he did. Bush, clearly, is a true heir to Lincoln 's throne. Unfortunately, that means we are all heirs to a Lincolnian legacy as well'one of increasing federal power and decreasing individual liberty. Let us hope and pray that we can find a peaceful way to disinherit ourselves.