Eric Foner: Reading Lincoln in Pakistan

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Eric Foner, a member of The Nation's editorial board, is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author, most recently, of Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction.]

Every generation and every political movement, it seems, reinvents Abraham Lincoln in its own image. But rarely has he been invoked so cynically as on November 4, when President-General Pervez Musharraf quoted extensively from Lincoln to justify the suspension of the Pakistani Constitution and the imposition of martial law. Musharraf declared that during the Civil War, Lincoln "broke laws, he violated the Constitution, he usurped arbitrary power, he trampled individual liberties." He quoted from an 1864 letter to Albert Hodges, in which Lincoln declared that "measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation." Musharraf failed to note that in this letter, Lincoln was not defending the abrogation of democracy or the suppression of civil liberties but his decision to emancipate the slaves.

But even on the grounds of civil liberties and executive authority, the General's effort to wrap himself in Lincoln's mantle is ludicrous. Lincoln did take actions that interfered with Americans' freedoms and bent the Constitution. At the outset of the Civil War, without Congressional authorization, Lincoln raised troops, appropriated funds, suspended habeas corpus in Maryland and ignored a ruling by Chief Justice Roger Taney ordering the release of a man arrested for aiding the rebellion. Later, Lincoln extended the suspension of habeas corpus to include the entire North. Under his authority as Commander in Chief, the military arrested thousands, most of them accused of actively aiding the Confederacy, but some of nothing more than criticizing Administration policies. The most notorious was Clement Vallandigham, a Congressman from Ohio, convicted by a military tribunal of disloyalty for a speech opposing the draft. Lincoln ordered him deported to the Confederacy.

These policies are today viewed as serious blemishes on the history of American freedom. But they do not add up to a general assault on the Constitution and all were ratified by a democratically elected Congress. Here is what Lincoln did not do and Musharraf did. He did not suspend the Constitution, remove the Chief Justice, impose martial law upon the entire country, incarcerate dozens of lawyers, arrest leaders of the opposition party and human rights advocates or ban political demonstrations. Perhaps most important, he did not disrupt the operation of political democracy. Throughout the Civil War, elections were held on schedule. In 1862 the Democratic opposition won sweeping gains in Congressional contests, but Congress continued to meet. During the summer of 1864, Lincoln feared he might be defeated for re-election, but the election went ahead as scheduled. Lincoln insisted that the United States must demonstrate that even in the midst of a civil war, a democracy could submit its policies to the judgment of the people.

If Musharraf is interested in learning from Lincoln, he might ponder these remarks made shortly after the 1864 election: "We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.... But the election, along with its incidental, and undesirable strife, has done good too. It has demonstrated that a people's government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war."

Lincoln confronted the greatest crisis in American history, a threat to the very existence of the nation. Musharraf, according to a spokesman, acted because of "a threat to future law and order." Lincoln believed in government of the people, by the people, for the people. Musharraf believes in government of Musharraf, by Musharraf, for Musharraf. That's an important difference.

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Musarrat ali khan - 12/8/2007

President Lincoln believed in government of the people, by the people, for the people. So does President Musharraf.
Despite the fact that Benazir and Nawaz Sharif the so-called Political Leaders of Pakistan have repeatedly threatened to boycott the forthcoming Elections, President Musharraf has stated very strongly that Elections would be held in the first week of January 08, come what may.
In Pakistan we do not have a Martial Law. I remember the days of General Ayub, when under his Martial Law we could see Soldiers and Armored vehicles on every street corner. These days we do not see any. There has been no interruption in the flow of our daily life.
In Vietnam the U.S. Armed Forces always complained that they are fighting a war with their hands tied behind their back. It meant that their Rules of Engagement did not allow them to engage the enemy fully.
What President Musharraf did was to provide the Armed Forces of Pakistan the legal shelter to defend the country from the Enemies of the State who had become so lethal that they were even threatening the Sovereignty of Pakistan.
This state of Emergency shall also be lifted on December 16th 2007.
Musarrat Ali Khan