Friday, September 01, 2006

Abe's Question

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert ? This is none the less injurious when effected by getting a father, or brother, or friend, into a public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked Administration of a contemptible Government, too weak to arrest and punish him if he shall desert. I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.

A. Lincoln, "Letter from; The President to Hon. Erastus Corning and Others. Executive Mansion, Washington, June 13, 1863."

I've always been haunted by Lincoln's question, which is bigger than Lincoln, bigger than this one war or any war. It goes to the very nature of government and power. Any other sort of answer ("But this war is different!") merely dodges the question. A Rousseau or a Locke might step up to it, but we have no one today, it seems, brave enough to risk the rotten rhetorical tomatoes that answer would earn him.