Does Musharraf's Comparison to Lincoln Hold Up?

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Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has compared his actions in the past couple of days — imposing emergency rule — to what U.S. President Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War. Daniel Farber, a constitutional law specialist who authored a book about President Lincoln and the U.S. Constitution, says Musharraf is distorting American history.


It has been three days since General Pervez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency in Pakistan. In justifying his decision to suspend his country's constitution, Musharraf invoked President Lincoln.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: As an idealist, Abraham Lincoln had one consuming passion during that time of supreme crisis, and this was to preserve the union, because the union was in danger. Towards that end, he broke laws, he violated the constitution, he usurped arbitrary party, trampled individual liberties. His justification was necessity.

NORRIS: That was General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Daniel Farber is a professor of constitutional law. He says Musharraf is distorting American history.

DANIEL FARBER: When I heard General Musharraf comparing himself with Abraham Lincoln, I felt like saying, General Musharraf, I admire Abraham Lincoln. I've studied Abraham Lincoln. You're no Abraham Lincoln.

Musharraf was playing into a perennial myth, of Lincoln as dictator. According to this myth, Lincoln ran rough shot over the Constitution, civil liberties and democracy in order to save the union. This was a myth that was begun by his political enemies and has been perpetuated by various people including advocates of absolute political power like Richard Nixon.

There is a seed of truth to the myth. Lincoln did take extraordinary emergency actions, some of which were legally debatable. He also admitted that the stark necessities of the situation were sometimes hard to square with legalities. But Lincoln was far from being a dictator, as historians today recognize. Almost all of Lincoln's major actions fell easily within his constitutional powers. When he called up the troops after the fall of Fort Sumter and put the nation on a wartime footing, his actions were upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which was the subject of the letter that President Musharraf quoted, was clearly within his power as commander in chief to deal with enemy territory. The same is true of other acts such as martial law and warzones or occupied territory. Those were traditional uses of the president's war powers, and they were all upheld by the Supreme Court.

When Lincoln was sailing close to the constitutional line, he was always conscious of the need to remain accountable for his actions. His most controversial action was suspending habeas corpus at the outset of the war. While the Constitution does not speak directly to this point, many legal scholars think only Congress could suspend habeas. Lincoln went to Congress almost immediately, and Congress ultimately ratified his actions.

Finally, Lincoln never compromised on his commitment to democracy. He believed that he would lose the election of 1864, but he never considered cancelling the election. Unlike General Musharraf, Lincoln believed in majority rule to the depth of his soul. After all, as he said at Gettysburg, the goal of the war was to defend government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Lincoln was keenly aware that he had taken an oath to defend the Constitution and to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. In fact, the very letter that Musharraf quotes emphasizes this oath. In the context of the Civil War, defending the Constitution and the law sometimes required extreme actions. Some of those actions strained the very laws he was trying to uphold.

So in some cases, Lincoln was walking a tightrope. But unlike Musharraf, he succeeded in walking that tightrope, rather than jumping into the void.

NORRIS: Daniel Farber is a professor of constitutional law at Berkeley Law School and the author of "Lincoln's Constitution."

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