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The Views of Abraham
Lincoln on American Government

Brandon Wright
Anna-Jonesboro Community High School, Anna

Abraham Lincoln had definite views on American government. He believed there was a clear, guiding force behind the American government, and the government had a defined purpose in American citizen's lives. However, Lincoln's beliefs about the government's role in the abolition of slavery did change.

"What is the frame of government under which we live? The answer must be: The Constitution of the United States," Lincoln said this during his Cooper Union Address in New York City, February 27, 1860. Throughout the Cooper Union Address, Lincoln alluded to the government's role in the expansion of slavery of each of the thirty-nine original signers of the Constitution. Lincoln valued not only what the Constitution itself said but also what the original framers said. He came to his conclusion in the Cooper Union Address based upon the actions of each of the thirty-nine signers. Lincoln always looked to the Constitution for important decisions he made; the clear, guiding force behind the American government, in Lincoln's eyes, was the Constitution. Because he believed every determination he made would effect the American people for generations to come, Lincoln second-guessed himself on the issue of emancipation. His final decision, as based upon many of his speeches and writings of late 1862, was made because he believed the original framers of the Constitution would have deemed the preservation of the Union a greater priority than the preservation of slavery. People often believe that Lincoln suspended the Constitution when he suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, but Lincoln did hold firm to the Constitution. Section 9, Article 1 of the Constitution says the writ of habeas corpus cannot be suspended except in "cases of rebellion" where "public safety may require it." Lincoln used this to preserve the Union, as he stated in his Proclamation of the Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus in September 1862. The impetus of Lincoln's government "of the people, by the people, for the people" was the Constitution.

"The legitimate object of government is to do for people what needs to be done." Lincoln made these comments on what role the government should play on July 1, 1854. Lincoln asked why government exists. "Why not each individual," he said, "take himself the whole fruit of his labor, without having any of it taxed away , , , ?" He answered saying that government should do what people cannot do by individual effort. Lincoln cited many examples of things that people cannot do on their own: making and maintaining roads and bridges, providing for the helpless, providing schools, and dispos-

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ing of the deceased's property. Other responsibilities of government, Lincoln pointed out, are because of the "injustice of men." These responsibilities include the forming and maintaining of the military, police, and civil departments. Lincoln said the government should protect its citizens and prevent them from committing wrongs. He said it was not the government's place to redress the wrongs of the world, but it "may, and ought to, redress all wrongs which are wrongs to the nation itself."

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," he said in Springfield. Thus began Lincoln's race for the United States Senate against Stephen A. Douglas in June 1858. "I believe this government," Lincoln said, "cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free ... It will become all one thing or the other." Two years later during the Cooper Union Address, when he was running for President, Lincoln said that he and the Republicans were

One of fifty specifically printed copies
of the Emancipation Proclamation were signed by President Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and John G. Nicolay, Lincoln's private secretary.
proclamation

proposing only to keep slavery out of the territories; they were asking to leave slavery where the framers of the Constitution had left it. They would tolerate an evil, but they would not extend one. The South did not like this. The South wanted to be able to take slaves into the territories. After the election of 1860, many southern states seceded from the Union, and, eventually, eleven states left the Union. Lincoln believed that secession was unconstitutional. When the South fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Civil War began. Lincoln wanted desperately to win the war because the nation needed desperately to win the war. Therefore, Lincoln changed his policy on slavery. On September 22, 1862, he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln second-guessed himself on this issue. In a September 28 letter to Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin, he spoke badly of his decision. "My expectations are not as sanguine as are those of some friends," he wrote. "This [Proclamation], looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory." However, in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln said "the proposed emancipation would shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure increase of the population, and proportionately [increase] the wealth of the country." Consequently, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Why did Lincoln change his mind on the issue of slavery? He ultimately decided that the framers of the Constitution would rather the Union be preserved than the institution of slavery.

"That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at." On January 27, 1838, Lincoln delivered his Lyceum Address in Springfield, Illinois. He was only 28. Even then, he realized how great was the Constitution of the United States. Throughout his career, Lincoln preserved, protected, and defended the Constitution, especially as president. Lincoln knew what

government should and should not do, and why people needed government. Lincoln may have changed his mind on the issue of slavery, but he never failed to support the Constitution and its framers.[From Daniel J. Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelley, A History of the United States; Mario M. Cuomo, ed., Lincoln on Democracy; Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865.]

ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1997

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