According to the popular-again Alexander Hamilton, “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government." In light of this requirement and the failure of the Articles of Confederation to meet it, the authors of our Constitution took careful measures to create a powerful executive. After witnessing the expansion of executive rule, in both foreign and domestic affairs, over the past two administrations, we might well wonder whether the Founders went too far or created enough of the checks and balances they thought made our executive consistent with "the genius of republican government." Or perhaps our experience confirms that however useful they may be, institutional restraints can never fully obviate the need for certain human virtues. No president before or after has pushed the limits of executive action to the extent Abraham Lincoln did. His understanding of the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation and its compatibility with republican principles of government illuminates the need for self-restraint in the executive as a supplement to the institutional separation of powers.
Lincoln's sensitivity to this difficulty restrained the partisan impulse to boast, as we sometimes hear today, "I've got a pen and I've got a phone," or "I just took an action to change the law." Instead, he did his best to minimize and even hide the extent of his rule. In the cabinet meeting of September 22, 1862, Lincoln surprised both its pious and less-than-orthodox members by informing them "I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker," that if the rebel army was driven out of Maryland after Antietam, he would issue the proclamation. Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy, recorded in his diary, "It might be thought strange, [Lincoln] said, that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slaves." And when in the spring of 1864, he made a written record at the request of the governor of Kentucky of an account he had given in person of his shifting views on the "indispensable necessity" of emancipation, Lincoln again sought to diminish the part he played.
I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it.
No president has a stronger case to have been the indispensable man for the moment. Yet Lincoln was careful to avoid the claim that "I am your best hope" or "I alone can fix it."