Lincoln and the Other Washington

Booker T. Washington

On the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, February 12, 1909, Booker T. Washington delivered an important speech before the Republican Club of New York City. His “Address on Abraham Lincoln” deserves to be better known. Not only does it provide an astute assessment of the Great Emancipator’s virtues and legacy, but it demonstrates the ability of a talented statesman to deploy the memory of Lincoln to meet pressing needs of the moment.

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The Camera of Liberty


The abolitionist newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass was called the North Star, after the direction of travel taken by runaway slaves. As his fame and influence grew, Douglass became a living version of that guiding light (and the newspaper was eventually renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper). Like Polaris, he was the brightest star in the constellation of the 19th century.

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Defining America Down

It was inevitable that some supporter of President Obama’s would come along and compare his executive action on immigration to the most famous executive order of them all, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman has done the honors, and his comparison is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak.

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Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment and Compensation for Emancipation of Slaves

Today, one of the least-discussed aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is whether it gave rise to a takings claim. The Proclamation was enacted under Lincoln's war powers, whereby he seized property (slaves) in the rebel states, and then emancipated them. Apparently, many southerners sought to raise takings claims against the Federal Government. Similar claims were lodged following the ratification of the 13th amendment. At the time, Congress estimated that the cost of compensating the emancipated slaveowners was somewhere between $1.6 billion and $2 billion, roughly half of the total value of all property (real and personal) in the south. Section 1…

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The South Was Right, the Historians Are Wrong: Taking the Antislavery Origins of the Civil War Seriously

Why did the Southern states choose to secede when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860? At the time, Southerners attributed “secession winter” to the fear that Lincoln and the Republicans fully intended to make war on slavery, bypassing the Constitution, which left the issue of slavery to the states. Thus, they believed, their only option was to separate from the Union.

Northern Democrats agreed, contending that Republicans intended to circumvent the Constitution’s prohibition against direct federal action against slavery. Agitation by the “Black Republicans” was responsible for the crisis. The Democrats felt vindicated when Republicans refused to compromise on the extension of slavery into the territories. In addition, the Democrats charged, the Republicans intended to refuse to enforce the fugitive slave law that had been passed in 1850 as part of the Great Compromise.

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They Want to Be Like Abe

Abraham Lincoln is in the news again. That means that our politicians are comparing themselves to President Lincoln. This is an old pattern. After David McCullough’s Truman became a bestseller, the political class was busy drawing Truman comparisons. Now they are busy drawing Lincoln analogies. (Perhaps because he is from Illinois, President Obama has been comparing himself to Lincoln for years.) This pattern should not surprise us. John Adams noted that the most fundamental passion in the breast of politicians is the desire to be seen, to be noticed, to be loved: “The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger; and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.” Politicians hope to turn America’s affection to their own benefit by associating themselves with Lincoln, or Washington, or Truman, etc.

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The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

On January 1, 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in those states that were then in rebellion against the federal government. It is not a document frequently remembered or celebrated despite its intention to liberate slaves in the Confederate States of America. The document itself is careful, lawyerly, and tedious. Written with no explicit appeal to grand philosophic principles, authorized under the President’s war powers, the Emancipation Proclamation is also bound up with the destructiveness of the Civil War, arguable constitutional claims about executive power, and the extension of war beyond the battlefield to civilians and society. Needless…

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Lincoln’s Code of War

Lincoln's Code

The next edition of Liberty Law Talk is with professor and author John Fabian Witt on the subject of his new book Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History. Recently named by the New York Times to its 100 Notable Books' List for 2012, Witt's account of the laws of war in American history illustrates the tensions and conflicts that have followed from America's intention since the Declaration of Independence to fight under the existing laws of war, appealing to them for protection, while also using them to advance American interests. Witt's account moves through the War for…

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“Clothed with immense power”

Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s Lincoln opens with a chaotic battle in a river, black and white soldiers struggling to kill each other in hand-to-hand combat.  We then see pairs of black and white soldiers reciting from memory the Gettysburg Address back to the President.

Lincoln concludes the movie by delivering the Second Inaugural. Most of the time in between is an elaboration of his wartime and Reconstruction strategy and thus a commentary on the purposes of the First Inaugural and the Emancipation Proclamation. These occasions are the rhetorical high points of Lincoln’s presidency, though most of the movie is focused on events in early 1865.

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