The Magazine

The Blessings of Liberty

Secured by immense power.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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In those words, and in Lincoln’s conduct of the war’s early months, the president exemplified the paradoxical principle underlying even the Declaration of Independence: that our rights may be “unalienable,” but we ultimately must be “secure” by the very creation of a government capable of abridging those rights. And of the government powers erected by the Constitution to “secure the blessings of liberty,” the most important defense against existential threats is the president’s capacity to act swiftly, decisively, and controversially.

In short, Lincoln’s ability to free the slaves through the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 depended upon his ability to unilaterally act against the threats of 1861. Spielberg and his audience rightly exalt Lincoln’s fortitude in exercising the Constitution’s Article V amendment powers, but no less crucial was Lincoln’s exercise of the Article II executive powers. The road to the Thirteenth Amendment began not in January 1865, or even at Gettysburg, but at that moment in 1861 when President Lincoln resolved not to let “the Government itself go to pieces.”

“I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power,” Lincoln thunders on the screen. He was, and his successors are. The very power that threatens our liberty secures our liberty, and we must forever grapple with that contradiction.

Adam J. White is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

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