Abraham Lincoln, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated this day by the 44th president of the United States, served only two years in federal elected office before assuming the presidency in 1861.
Barack Obama, an only slightly more experienced federal legislator at the moment of his presidential ascension, will of course devote most of his attention to Lincoln’s presidential tenure.
But Obama would do well to spare a moment for pondering, and honoring, Lincoln’s term as a member of the U.S. House.
It was as a congressman from Illinois, serving from 1847 to 1849, that Lincoln distinguished himself as a daring critic of executive excess, who believed it was not merely appropriate but necessary for members of the House and Senate to challenge presidents in times of war. Lincoln was so radical when it came to constitutional questions that his stances may well have cost him the congressional career he had hoped to enjoy. But that radicalism has stood the test of time, and it is today one of the facets of the multi-faceted Lincoln that is most worthy of commendation.
Lincoln the congressman stood for the Constitution and against the illicit war-making of an authoritarian president, the atrocious James K. Polk, who ordered the invasion and occupation of Mexican lands with the purpose of annexing new states where slavery would be permitted. Along with his fellow dissenter, John Quincy Adams, Lincoln sought to censure Polk, and daily decried the president’s imperial reach and pro-slavery machinations.
Lincoln’s boldness – he effectively and repeatedly tagged Polk as a liar who had concocted a war based on false premises – set the standard for legislators who perceive a president to be assaulting the rule of law and the better angels of our nature.
When his law partner William Herndon complained that Lincoln’s condemnations of the president were inappropriate in a time of war, the congressman replied in a February 18, 1848, letter that remains one of the great documents of the struggle to maintain constitutional governance:
ON THE MEXICAN WAR
TO WILLIAM H. HERNDON.
WASHINGTON, February 15, 1848.
DEAR WILLIAM: Your letter of the 29th January 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 the sole judge.