In the nearly 226 years since the United States Constitution was ratified, America has weathered numerous storms. From the Whiskey Rebellion to September 11, crisis after crisis has been addressed. While the powers of each of the various governmental branches have fluctuated based on the demands of the situation at hand, one reality has remained constant: true dictatorial powers have never been assumed.
This is not to say, however, that such power grabs have not been suggested.
If there ever was an opportunity to impose a dictatorship over the American populace, the Civil War certainly presents cause. Faced with the separation of Southern states, President Abraham Lincoln had his hands full as he worked to unite Northern states and manage insurrection in the South. Freeing himself from the oversight and criticism of Congress would have simplified Lincoln’s great burden.
In fact, some suggested that a dictatorship was the only way to save the Union. General Joseph Hooker, in command of the Army of the Potomac, is noted as proclaiming to a newspaper that “[n]othing would go right until we had a dictator.”
Lincoln quickly quashed any ulterior motive held by General Hooker. Writing to the commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863, the President daftly put the general in his place:
I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.
President Lincoln did not bite at his general’s suggestion. Rather than succumbing to the siren of dictatorship during one of America’s greatest crises, Lincoln chastised General Hooker and reaffirmed the systems of checks and balances initiated with the ratification of the Constitution. Faced with support for a claim to ultimate power, Lincoln supported the Constitution, its strictures, and a commitment to democracy.