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If President Ulysses S. Grant were to step into office today, he would find a familiar scene: A divided nation scarred by violence, a recalcitrant Congress, a hostile media, and a sense that the very fundamentals of the Republic were on shaky ground. And perhaps he would be tempted to grab the presidential quill and achieve by executive order what he could not secure from Congress.
After all, in his day Grant had been the master of executive orders, issuing 217—a record. Early presidents made scant use of them—Jefferson, Madison and Monroe issued one each—and even Lincoln only reached 48. Yet in many ways Lincoln was Grant’s model for executive overreach.
Lincoln notoriously suspended the writ of habeas corpus, declared martial law, seized private property and set himself up with special war powers that were expressly forbidden by the Constitution. He justified this extra authority by the emergency of war and the singular objective of preserving the Union.
When Grant stepped into the presidency in 1869, he believed Lincoln’s justification still held weight. The nation was out of the war but not quite into the peace.