|Letter to William H. Herndon (Lincoln's law partner).
The second paragraph refers to the US annexation of
Mexican territory in 1846, which Lincoln opposed.
Washington, Feb. 18, 1848
Your letter of the 29th Jany. was received last night.
Being exclusively a constitutional argument, I wish to
submit some reflections upon it in the same spirit of
kindness that I know actuates you. Let me first state
what I understand to be your position. It is, that if
it shall become necessary, to repel invasion, the
President may, without violation of the Constitution,
cross the line, and invade the territory of another
country; and that whether such necessity exists in any
given case, the President is to be the sole judge.
Before going further, consider well whether this is,
or is not your position. If it is, it is a position
that neither the President himself, nor any friend of
his, so far as I know, has ever taken. Their only
positions are first, that the soil was ours where
hostilities commenced, and second, whether it was
rightfully ours or not, Congress had annexed it, and
the President, for that reason was bound to defend it,
both of which are as clearly proved to be false in
fact, as you can prove your house is not mine. The
soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or
attempt to annex it.
But to return to your position: Allow the President to
invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it
necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to
do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it
necessary for such purpose - and you allow him to make
war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit
to his power in this respect, after you have given him
so much as you propose. If, today, he should choose to
say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to
prevent the British from invading us, how could you
stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of
the British invading us," but he will say to you, "Be
silent; I see it, if you don't."
The provision of the Constitution giving the
war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I
understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had
always been involving and impoverishing their people
in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the
good of the people was the object. This, our
Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all
Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the
Constitution that no one man should hold the power of
bringing this oppression upon us. But your view
destroys the whole matter, and places our President
where kings have always stood.
Write soon again.
SOURCE: Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait
Through His Speeches and Writings, edited and with an
introduction by Don E. Fehrenbacher; New American