NORMAN — In honor of Constitution Day, the University of Oklahoma Union Programming Board invited Justin Dyer to speak Tuesday at the university about President Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution.
Dyer is an OU alumnus with a BA in political science. He currently teaches political science at the University of Missouri.
To begin his lecture, Dyer said this is a unique year because it is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. He hoped to provide insight as to how Lincoln viewed the Constitution and how his views shaped his decisions, like that of suspending habeas corpus and abolishing slavery.
Lincoln viewed the Constitution as tasking every branch with abiding by and protecting the government and that every branch would interpret the Constitution on their own, Dyer said.
He emphasized that while we celebrate the Constitution and its ambiguities on Constitution Day, those ambiguities are still a challenge now like they were for Lincoln. Also, Lincoln constantly opposed the judicial branch’s decisions, Dyer said.
“To Lincoln, turning over all constitutional interpretation to the Supreme Court was to give up self government,” Dyer said.
Lincoln’s approach to slavery was one based on natural law that slavery was antithetical to the idea that as rational beings, people should not be treated as property.
Dyer said Lincoln recognized that positive law, the Constitution, permitted slavery, but he also believed the Constitution gave him the executive power to abolish it.
“Lincoln believed the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was very important,” he said. “He thought that the covert language of the Constitution (the fact that the Constitution never used the term ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’) had a purpose and that the Constitution would outlive the institution.”
Lincoln believed impeachment would serve as a check to his executive power, Dyer said. Chief Justice Roger Taney did not back down to Lincoln’s claims and asked him if one allowed the commander in chief to make decisions like suspending habeas corpus, then how was the U.S. still a government of laws?
Taney said this was how the U.S. lost self government, Dyer said.
One lecture attendee asked Dyer whether impeachment was a viable form of keeping the president in check today.
“No, probably not,” Dyer said. “Lincoln’s solution isn’t really a solution.”
Despite all of the Constitution’s critics, the holes it may contain and struggles between the government’s branches, Dyer said we can celebrate successful amendments and overcoming challenges like slavery
Dehra McGuire, OU senior and pre-med student, said she initially came to the lecture because of a class, but she was happy she had attended.
“I never would have given much thought as to what Lincoln thought about the Constitution and the power he believed it gave him to abolish slavery,” McGuire said. “But I think we should all probably pay more attention to things like that with situations like our current president is in.”