In the days leading up to our expert panel at Ford’s Theatre, we thought it might be useful to scan the headlines for the latest in Lincoln invocations, political or otherwise. In other words, who’s actually asking, “what would Lincoln do (WWLD)?” Just this week, Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University who has written about everything from 19th century religious cults to the music of Bob Dylan, published an op-ed in The New York Times detailing the issues that led to the inclusion of a clause about “the public debt” in the Fourteenth Amendment. The piece is a challenge to the arguments Professor Lawrence Tribe has made for years against the Fourteenth Amendment’s purported application to the debt ceiling. Responding directly to Tribe, Wilentz writes, “these assertions…have no basis in the history of the 14th Amendment…in fact, that record clearly shows that Congress intended the amendment to prevent precisely the abuses that the current House Republicans blithely condone.”
You can read Wilentz’s articulations of that history yourself. What’s important for our purposes is what he says later about Abraham Lincoln. “As Lincoln well knew,” Wilentz writes in response to Tribe’s contention that presidents lack clear authority over the debt ceiling, “the executive, in times of national crisis, can invoke emergency powers to protect the Constitution.” There is certainly plenty of material in the annals of Lincolniana ( I just discovered the term) that supports this point, not least of which is Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas corpus. The problem with the analogy (and, to some extent, the inherent problem with analogies) is that it misses out on important contextual questions. Perhaps we can all accept that Lincoln believed in “emergency powers,” but would he have termed this moment as such? Would a national default represent the same kind of political and constitutional conflagration that the Civil War did? I find it hard to label Wilentz’s piece an ‘abuse’ of the Lincoln moniker, but his comparative lack of attention to the substance of the Lincoln/Obama, Lincoln/debt ceiling analogy does suggest that he might have been searching for one more point to bolster the broader credibility of his argument.
“What Would Lincoln Do? Understanding How Lincoln Gets Used (And Abused) in Today’s Washington” is a free public panel that will take place at Ford’s Theatre on Tuesday, October 15, 2013, from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tickets may be reserved at http://www.fords.org/event/what-would-lincoln-do. Those who cannot attend the panel, may view it online starting on the evening of October 16. Information about where to obtain access to the video will be available through http://new.livestream.com/gilderlehrman/lincoln.