At the same time, Lincoln pointed out that the Constitution had made no provision for "separation of the States," while it explicitly obligated him to "preserve, protect, and defend" the constitutional order. In other words, the democratic system had laid out ground rules for the peaceable regulation of political conflicts. It did not provide for secession, the triumph of "bullets over ballots," as Lincoln referred to it elsewhere. "Lincoln wins the election, and the losers don't like it, so they leave," McPherson said. "That would have completely discredited the idea of democracy."
This, of course, was the background of Lincoln's famous vow in the Gettysburg Address that "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." (If you think this is all a moot historical point, guess again: In the past few days 97,000 people unhappy with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election have signed an online petition urging secession of Texas from the Union.)
To be sure, Lincoln did assume far-ranging executive powers -- but he did so on a clearly defined constitutional basis that he undertook to explain before the legislature. "He went to Congress to explain his actions in order to avoid setting a precedent that could be exploited later," says Matthew Sitman, a PhD candidate in political theory at Georgetown University. "I think one of the most remarkable things about Lincoln's leadership is how narrowly he circumscribed those powers -- how he viewed them as temporary, justified by only the most dire necessity."
This was, one might argue, Lincoln's greatest strength. He could afford to act with comparative discrimination because he knew that he enjoyed a genuine democratic mandate from his own side. With a few important exceptions, Lincoln's administration allowed opposition politicians and newspapers to go right on assailing him and his policies throughout the war. And for all the harshness of the conflict, neither side dreamed of turning artillery directly on civilians.
The contrast, in short, does not flatter Assad. The Syrian president has shown no inclination to allow his personal rule to be checked in any way, shape, or form. He inherited his office from his father, Hafez, who seized power in 1970; the Assad dynasty is now the longest-running autocracy in the Arab world. The main instrument of their rule throughout has been the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, a party that has exercised near-totalitarian rule based on an ideology that traces its roots to 1930s fascism.
The power base of the party is the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs, a sect that encompasses only some 15 percent of the Syrian population. It is, presumably, precisely because Assad is all too aware of the extremely narrow basis of his own legitimacy that he has been so quick to crack down violently on even the mildest forms of dissent -- such as the peaceful protests that kicked off the current Syrian rebellion. As a result, the rebels are fighting to end a regime that has all too often treated them like subjects rather than citizens.