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What Lincoln Really Said

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By David Swanson

Alaska Congressman Don Young just attempted on the floor of the House to quote Abraham Lincoln's opinion on opposition to presidents' war plans. Young failed rather dramatically.

Here's his misquote of Lincoln:

"Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged."

That was close. You can see how Young could have made the mistake. Here's what Lincoln actually said:

"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."

Lincoln wrote these words while America was at war with Mexico, under the presidency of James Polk, and while Lincoln was a member of Congress. But Lincoln did more than talk about the fraud that had been used to launch that illegal and imperialistic war. He introduced a resolution demanding that Polk provide proof. Polk claimed to have launched that war only after American blood had been shed on American soil. Lincoln's resolution required Polk to identify the spot where that blood had been shed.

"Let him answer fully, fairly, and candidly," Lincoln said of the wartime President. "Let him answer with facts and not with arguments. Let him attempt no evasion, no equivocation."

When President Polk did not answer, Lincoln and John Quincy Adams sought a formal investigation of the president's pre-war intelligence claims, and of his use of secret funds to launch his fraudulent and illegal war. Under this pressure, Polk announced that he would not seek reelection. Lincoln, Adams, and their allies in Congress then passed a resolution honoring the service of Major General Zachary Taylor "in a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."

President Polk's descendant William Polk has, by the way, authored a book with former Senator George McGovern outlining a plan to end the Iraq War. There's improvement of a sort that some prominent families can't compare to!

You can read a full account of the above series of events in John Nichols' masterful book "The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders Cure for Royalism," which makes a couple of important points that have been forgotten just as much as the sort of man Abraham Lincoln was has been forgotten:

1.-Impeachment usually achieves its purpose of preserving our democracy short of actually arriving at a majority House vote for impeachment.
2.-Pursuing impeachment when appropriate is the only politically safe thing to do. Voters do not reward cowardice.

Here are what I hope will be a few more tantalizing samples of what you will find in this book:

*-Our Constitution was written as Edmund Burke was leading the impeachment of Warren Hastings in England - an effort that did not achieve impeachment but did restore democratic checks on executive power.

*-American colonies impeached governors and justices.

*-The British Parliament has seen an active effort to impeach Tony Blair that has weakened his power.

*-When Democrats failed to pursue impeachment of Reagan for Iran Contra, so that they could win the next elections, they lost the next elections badly.

*-Bush will never again face an election. The same was true of Johnson, Truman, Nixon, and Clinton when those impeachment campaigns began.

*-The same Constitution that set up our elections schedule discusses impeachment in six places as the central means to maintain democracy between elections and avoid the "elected despotism" that Jefferson feared.

*-After the Whigs attempted to impeach Tyler, they picked up seven seats, and Tyler left politics.

*-Weeks after he lobbied for Johnson's impeachment, Grant was nominated for President.

*-Lincoln, too, was of course elected president.

*-Keith Ellison, who introduced a resolution to impeach Bush and Cheney into the Minnesota state legislature last year, was subsequently elected to Congress.

*-After the Republicans pursued impeachment of Truman and won what they wanted (and the nation needed) from the Supreme Court, they won big in the next elections.

*-Even during and following the unpopular impeachment of Clinton, the Republicans held onto power and lost fewer seats than is the norm at that point in a majority tenure.

*-Articles of impeachment have been filed against Tyler, Johnson, Cleveland, Hoover, Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush.

There are only two presidents who have ever been less popular with the American public than Bush currently is. Both were unpopular for seizing too much power. They were Nixon and Truman. In both cases, Congress began impeachment proceedings. In both cases, power was rightfully restored to the legislative branch of our government. Neither Nixon nor Truman ever had remotely as much power or anywhere close to as low popularity as does Vice President Dick Cheney.
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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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