Modern American presidents have had some of their finest and worst hours as they acted as commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces. Pulitzer prize-winning historian James McPherson argues that Abraham Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief during the American Civil War.
He talks about Lincoln as a wartime leader and his new book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, in this episode of the UCTV podcast Conversations with History (website, iTunes), an interview show hosted by U.C. Berkeley Prof. Harry Kreisler.
Some of McPherson’s main points:
Lincoln understood that his role as military leader was inextricably bound up with his role as political leader. For example, in the first days of his administration he managed the crisis over the resupply of Fort Sumter in such a way that the rebels fired the first shot. This enabled Lincoln to portray the Confederacy as the aggressor, and helped unify the North in support of his hard-line policy against the secessionists.
Lincoln famously suspended habeas corpus and instituted military tribunals during the Civil War. This was in response to secessionist sympathizers in the judiciary who tried to keep Lincoln’s government from holding suspected rebels in custody.
It is interesting to contrast Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties during threat to the very survival of the nation, and George W. Bush’s attempt to suspend civil liberties in the face of a much less serious threat.
(Listener’s note: You might want to skip the first five minutes of the interview which include some chit-chat about McPherson’s boyhood and how he became interested in becoming a historian.)
Attention American civil war history buffs