Paul Greenberg

The circumstances of his birth February 12, 1809, were not what you would call auspicious: in a log cabin complete with one door, one window and one clay chimney on the Big South fork of Nolin's Creek a couple of miles outside Hodgenville, Ky., on the ever moving American frontier.

A family story has his cousin Dennis Hanks running down to the cabin on hearing the news to pick up the new, wrinkledy, red-faced baby boy from beside an exhausted Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Whereupon little Abraham began squawling no end, and the disgusted Dennis handed him off to an aunt in attendance, saying only: "Take him! He'll never come to much."

A. Lincoln always did have a way of fooling folks who leapt to conclusions. By the time he became the 16th president of the United States, it looked as though the Union was finished. One by one the Southern states had peeled off: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas . . . .

On February 4, 1861, delegates met at Montgomery, Ala., to form the Confederate States of America. When he was sworn in as president a month later, these United States were united only in theory. After the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter early on the morning of April 12, the new president declared that an insurrection existed and put out a call for 75,000 troops. Whereupon the Upper South - Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina - seceded, too. In turn, West Virginia would secede from Virginia in order to stay in the Union. All was turmoil.

Maryland was threatening to secede, which meant the national capital, bordered by Virginia and Maryland, might be cut off from the remaining loyal states. The new president made a fateful decision, the first of many that would be hotly disputed in the courts. He ordered the arrest of pro-secessionist lawmakers in that state, declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

The still new president, citing his sworn duty "to preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution, and to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," defended his action by asking: "Are all the laws but one (the right of habeas corpus) to go unexecuted, and the government go to pieces lest that one be violated?"

In his capacity as president and commander-in-chief, Mr. Lincoln would subject those interfering with military enlistments to martial law, and imprison hundreds of anti-war activists and draft-resisters - including doctors, lawyers, editors, judges, civic leaders . . . .

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.