The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I admire him. My libertarian friends may disagree, of course, but all evidence is that his humility, faith, and vision increased while he was in office. While he occasionally used questionable presidential powers, in general he did so for the right reasons. He was the right man at the right time.
There is no one whose statecraft more vividly illustrates the style of constitutional leadership better than Abraham Lincoln. He stated the problem of constitutional leadership with uncommon clarity in his Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861. “Must a government, of necessity,” he asked, “be too strong for the liberties of its own people or too weak to maintain its own existence?”
As Lincoln understood, the most essential feature of constitutional leadership is self-restraint. Constitutional government is, by definition, limited government. Governments may be limited either with respect to their means or with respect to their ends. Constitutional government is both. It deliberately leaves some things outside the parameters of political control. Our government, for example, respects the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These belong to the discretion of the individual, and it is the task of government to fulfill the function of protecting the exercise of each person’s right to use or misuse their freedom as he sees fit. A government that seeks to supervise every aspect of its citizens’ private lives is on the way to the destruction of constitutionalism.
The self-restraint imposed by the doctrine of consent was the opposite of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” proclaimed by Lincoln’s great rival, Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas had argued that it was the right of every state or territory to decide for itself whether or not to permit slavery — a case of simple majority rule. What the majority of people wanted within a designated territory was sufficient to decide the problem. Thus Douglas could declare that it was a matter of “indifference” to him whether slavery was voted up or down.
For Lincoln, however, the doctrine of unlimited majority rule violated the principle of constitutional government. Constitutions are devices for restraining power, whether this be the power of a king or a popular majority. If slavery is a good, Lincoln enjoyed chiding his audiences, then it is a good that no man has ever chosen for himself. It is consent that forms the essence of constitutional government.