What Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln Have in Common

What Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln Have in Common

By Robert Kofman

President Trump likes to compare himself to President Lincoln and indeed there are some similarities. Both won with less than a majority of the popular vote and took office in a deeply divided, polarized country with a substantial portion of the media engaging in virulent personal attacks on their character. They both expanded the President’s executive power to address what they saw as threats to homeland security and they devised new ways to communicate with the people. 

While Trump has waged a war of words with the media and would undoubtedly like to silence his fiercest critics, Lincoln actually did. Faced with an armed Rebellion by eleven Southern states, he desperately needed to keep in the Union the four border states where slavery was legal [Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware]. The first federal troops who marched through Baltimore on their way to Washington were attacked by rioters who supported Confederate independence. Lincoln reacted by taking bold steps including empowering military commanders to arrest and imprison civilians who were advocating the Rebel cause and suspending habeas corpus [the right to have a judge determine whether an arrest and detention is lawful]. The press was not exempt as 300 newspapers were shut down for various periods of time and scores of newspaper owners, editors and reporters imprisoned. Trials were held by military tribunals, not civilian courts. Over the course of the war close to 14,000 people, in states that remained loyal to the Union, were arrested and put in military prisons.


As the long and bloody conflict dragged on and causalities mounted, an antiwar movement arose that wanted to end the bloodshed by granting the Confederacy its independence. The most vociferous Peace Democrats were called Copperheads by Republicans who viewed them as poisonous snakes. 

At first Lincoln’s suppression of civil liberties was limited to the critical border states. As public support for his continued prosecution of the war wavered, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus across the entire country. Newspapers were shut down and civilians arrested by military authorities in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The most prominent Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, was arrested and found guilty by a military court of making disloyal statements aimed at weakening the Union war effort. Lincoln had Vallandingham exiled to the Confederacy.

Congress ratified Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus whichtheConstitution allows for in time of Rebellion. After the war ended the Supreme Court ruled that his imposition of martial law, when the civilian courts were in normal operation, was unconstitutional.

Trump inherited the ongoing war against terrorism. Trump’s first effort to expand Presidential power was aimed at controlling lawful immigration and travel. After a number of false starts the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s power as President to limit travel from certain Muslim majority countries. In doing so the Supreme Court took the opportunity to repudiate its opinion upholding President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order that interned in concentration camps American citizens of Japanese ethnicity for the duration of World War II. 

Having failed to secure Congressional funding for an extensive wall on the Mexican border, Trump has invoked the 1976 National Emergencies Act [“NEA”] and issued a proclamation that illegal immigration and drug trafficking pose a threat to national security. In the NEA Congress delegated to the President broad discretion to determine when an emergency exists. Many Presidents have used the NEA. President Obama declared ten emergencies [most involving sanctions against foreign individuals and nations such as Libya, Yemen, Venezuela and Russia]. No prior President has used the NEA to circumvent Congressional authority to determine appropriations. Legal challenges to Trump’s effort to expand Presidential power to build a barrier on the Southern border will likely end up being resolved by the Supreme Court. The NEA does not define what is an emergency and there has never been a successful challenge to a Presidential declaration of an emergency.

Trump rails against “fake news”. He would have had plenty of targets to assail if he had lived during the Civil War.  Biased editors and reporters felt free to try and destroy the reputations of people they didn’t like. General William Tecumseh Sherman was notoriously hostile to the press who took retribution by publishing false stories that he was stark raving mad. Newspapers were either Democrat or Republican and the news was reported through a biased political lens. Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address was harshly criticized by the Democratic press while receiving high praise in Republican papers. The era’s cutting-edge technology was the telegraph and reporters rushed to be the first to use the wires, often with incomplete facts resulting in a multitude of false stories, including battles that were never fought.

In such a tumultuous environment Lincoln created a new method for communicating with the American people. As Harold Holzer describes in his book, Lincoln and the Power of the Press, Lincoln combatted harsh political and newspaper attacks by writing letters defending his policies. The letters were addressed to the person or newspaper editor that was critical of him. Lincoln released his private letters to various Republican newspapers who supported him. The letters would be printed in full and were picked up by papers across the country. Lincoln had ingeniously found a way to powerfully amplify his voice to a nationwide audience.

Like Lincoln, Trump has innovated in the way a President communicates with the public. He uses modern technology to disseminate his views in real time to the nation and the world.  Trump’s use of Twitter allows him to bypass the media and broadcast what he is thinking many times a day to his fifty-nine million followers. 

Lincoln has a well-earned reputation as America’s greatest President. He ended slavery. His steely resolve to see the country reunited and his political adroitness in managing a fractious Congress and a strong-willed Cabinet led to ultimate victory. Despite his crack down on the press and individuals sympathetic to the Confederacy, he ensured that free elections continued during the war including the 1864 Presidential election. Lincoln’s reelection was a reflection that the majority of the people approved of his war polices, including his controversial suppression of civil liberties.

While there are enormous differences between Trump and Lincoln there are some similarities. Both expanded their executive authority to address what they saw as threats to national security and both Presidents were creative in finding innovative ways to communicate to the people rationales for their policies and positions. 



Born in Bellefonte, PA, Robert Kofman is a graduate of Penn State and Duke Law School. Kofman became a labor lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia before entering private practice in Miami, FL as a management side labor and employment attorney. Before retiring he was routinely rated as outstanding in his legal specialty by many publications including The Best Lawyers in America and Chambers USA.

After retiring from the practice of law, Kofman desired to keep intellectually engaged by writing a historical novel as a way to help educate people in an engaging fashion about the Civil War. General Meade: A Novel of the Civil War is the result.

General Meade: A Novel of the Civil War is available for purchase in paperback and e-book via Amazon and all major booksellers on March 5, 2019.