Abraham “Abe” Lincoln once said that “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” And while I would caution against the potential implications of testing people’s character by giving them power, being that it could result in far-from-desirable consequences, the sixteenth US president does speak the truth. His own presidency during the Civil War was representative of this. Politically speaking, Lincoln had faced numerous setbacks in the form of failing in his election campaigns. Once he had gained the authority of the presidential office, his character was brought under great historical scrutiny based on his actions around the Civil War. His fellow policymakers in Congress were brought into conflict with him because of how he had chosen to exercise his power.
It is well-established that the trigger for the Civil War during Lincoln’s presidency was his desire to bring an end to slavery in the United States. For some, it became an early human rights issue, because the African slaves had essentially been treated as property, which was unethical and contradictory to the ideals espoused in the US. But for others, it was a rejection of states’ rights, wherein each states’ government could manage itself as they desired through their own policies. One must also consider the fact that the states most affected by the abolishment of slavery had built their economies on agriculture and slave labour. To end a massive portion of these economies would stunt the economic development of the affected states. Hence, Lincoln was forced into a dilemma wherein the abolishment of slavery would have led some slaveowners to economic decline, while the freed slaves would have been treated as second-class citizens. It was a choice between those that allowed his presidency, and those who had been oppressed by his peers.
The man utilized the military without Congressional consent to bring a quicker end to the Civil War. Because the president is supposed to seek Congressional consent before taking any actions, the decision to make use of the military was technically an abuse of power that had significant implications. By making use of military action, he was able to keep the Civil War from going on any longer than it might have if he had waited for Congress to approve every military action. After all, war is not like a game where people take turns. War is constant, with ever-changing circumstances.
Being that Lincoln’s proposal to modestly improve human rights in the young nation was met by full-on treason, history would have probably viewed the sixteenth president as being complicit if he had not been as proactive in his response. Therefore, this critical decision was one that carried foresight, given the potential consequences of not intervening sooner. One might say that Lincoln’s manipulation of his authority revealed a more humanitarian side to himself, an admirable characteristic.
Analogically, one could compare Lincoln’s decision to take over the military during the Civil War to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to use the atomic bomb in Japan during World War Two. In the latter example, the only other option considered was a full-scale invasion, which would have seen an extreme allocation of resources and manpower, therefore resulting in a prolonged war with so many more deaths. Lincoln’s decision carried very similar consequences, though with implications centred more around the US than the world at-large. This reveals another aspect of Abe Lincoln’s character, showcasing a willingness to take a stand behind something he believed in, as well as his consideration for his fellow Americans.
Ultimately, Abe Lincoln himself proved the truth behind his own statement. Most can put up with adversity, but you need to give them power to test their character. In dealing with the crisis of his presidency, the Civil War, his readiness to act demonstrated some of his most reputable traits; humane, prudent, patriotic, and honest, at least to his own opinion. Simultaneously, his disregard for established processes also meant that he had shown a willingness to violate and ignore rules for his own purposes.
Yet, it would go on to set a precedent for future presidents to violate established rules all the same, mostly for the good of the American population. This is especially true for those who faced major dilemmas, as Roosevelt did during World War Two. Some would abuse it to protect themselves, but his use of power would be an example in the history books (for his successors) on how they ought to maintain their constituents whenever and wherever possible. With this precedent in place, each president following Lincoln would also have their characters tested and revealed through how they wielded their authority during their respective terms. Abe Lincoln was right when he said that “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” And there is no better example of that than what Lincoln’s presidency had shown about his character.