Lincoln’s Antiwar Record

Lincoln’s Antiwar Record

Looking for a model lawmaker who called a President to account for launching a war on fabricated grounds? Consider Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln’s rebuke of James Polk.


An old marketing adage states that no product exists whose sales cannot be improved by associating it with Abraham Lincoln. The same seems to be true in politics. As Congress debated resolutions condemning the escalation of the Iraq War, the remaining supporters of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy invoked Lincoln to tar the war’s opponents with the brush of treason. But this reflects a complete misunderstanding of Lincoln’s record.

The latest example of the misuse of Lincoln came in a February 13 article in the Washington Times by conservative writer Frank Gaffney. Gaffney quoted Lincoln as declaring that wartime Congressmen who “damage morale and undermine the military” should be “exiled or hanged.” Glenn Greenwald, on Salon, quickly pointed out that the “quote,” which has circulated for the past few years in conservative circles, is a fabrication. (Conservative use of invented Lincoln statements is nothing new–Ronald Reagan used a series of them in a speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention. But today, when Lincoln’s entire works are online and easily searchable, there is no possible excuse for invoking fraudulent quotations.)

Greenwald did not point out that Lincoln’s record as a member of Congress during the Mexican War utterly refutes the conservative effort to appropriate his legacy. Lincoln was elected to the House of Representatives in 1846, shortly after President James Polk invaded Mexico when that country refused his demand to sell California to the United States. Polk falsely claimed that he was responding to a Mexican invasion.

Shortly before Lincoln’s term in Congress began, he attended a speech in Lexington, Kentucky, by his political idol Senator Henry Clay. “This is no war of defense,” Clay declared in a blistering attack on Polk, “but one of unnecessary and offensive aggression.” A month later, Lincoln introduced a set of resolutions challenging Polk’s contention that Mexico had shed American blood on American soil and voted for a statement, approved by the House, that declared the war “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President.”

Clay and Lincoln objected as strenuously as any member of Congress today to a war launched by a President on fabricated grounds. When Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, defended the President’s right to invade another country if he considered it threatening, Lincoln sent a devastating reply. Herndon, he claimed, would allow a President “to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect…. 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?” The Constitution, he went on, gave the “war-making power” to Congress precisely to prevent Presidents from starting wars while “pretending…that the good of the people was the object.”

Like Bush, Lincoln spoke of the United States as a beacon of liberty, an example to the world of the virtues of democracy. But he rejected the idea of American aggression in the name of freedom. He included in an 1859 speech a biting satire of “Young America,” a group of writers and politicians who glorified territorial aggrandizement. Young America, he remarked, “owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it, and intending to have it…. He is a great friend of humanity; and his desire for land is not selfish, but merely an impulse to extend the area of freedom. He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land.” Substitute “oil” for “land” and the statement seems eerily relevant in the early twenty-first century.

Conservatives should think twice before invoking Lincoln’s words, real or invented, in the cause of the Iraq War and before equating condemnations of Bush’s policies and usurpations with treason.

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