Abraham Lincoln and Executive Power Print E-mail
We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution
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African American Soldiers

“It is the duty of every Government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war, as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person, on account of his color and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism, and a crime against the civilization of the age.” —General Order, July 30, 1863 (Lubin 2005, p. 484)

Executive Authority

“I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.” —Lincoln to Zachariah Chandler, U.S. senator from Michigan, July 4, 1864 (Herbert 1995, p. 511)


“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.” —Speech in Edwardsville, Illinois, September 11, 1858 (Fehrenbacher 1989, p. 585)

“The world never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now; are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.” —From an address at a sanitary fair in Baltimore, April 18, 1864 (Lubin 2005, p. 468)


“When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government,--that is despotism. If the negro is a man, then my ancient faith teaches me that 'all men are created equal,' and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another.” —From a speech given in Peoria, Illinois, in reply to Senator Stephen Douglas, October 16, 1854 (Lubin 2005, p. 35)

“Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? If they do, I wish to answer you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the time of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That, I suppose, is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.” —From a letter to Alexander Stephens of Georgia, December 22, 1860

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that....I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” —From a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, August 22, 1862 (Moores 1914, 173)

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say that we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not, cannot fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”—Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862 (Lubin 2005, p. 388)


Donald, David Herbert. 1995. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. 1989. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858. New York: Literary Classics of the United States.

Lubin, Martin, ed. 2005. The Words of Abraham Lincoln: Speeches, Proclamations, and Papers of Our Most Eloquent President. New York: Tess Press.

Moores, Charles W., ed. 1914. Lincoln: Addresses and Letters. New York: American Book Company.