Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lincoln Again

“I fear you do not fully comprehend the danger of abridging the liberties of the people. Nothing but the sternest necessity can ever justify it. A government had better go to the extreme of toleration than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardise in any degree, the common rights of its citizens.”

I've been seeing this Abe Lincoln quote a lot recently.

Andrew Sullivan used it recently to book-end a column in the London Times defending those who stand up for civil rights, and condemn torture, in the war on Islamist terrorism. I think he's right, of course, but I also have noticed that polemicists who enlist historical figures in their crusades often make ill-advised choices.

The quote Sullivan uses is a lovely and forceful statement. Its source is the artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900), who from February through July 1864 worked at the White House painting "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before Lincoln’s Cabinet." Carpenter was hardly an impartial observer, being a passionate abolitionist. He put the Lincoln quote into a book he wrote, "The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House."

At one of the "levees," in the winter of 1864, during a lull in the hand-shaking, Mr. Lincoln was addressed by two lady friends, one of whom is the wife of a gentleman subsequently called into the Cabinet. Turning to them with a weary air, he remarked that it was a relief to have now and then those to talk to who had no favors to ask. The lady referred to is a radical, — a New Yorker by birth, but for many years a resident of the West. She replied, playfully, "Mr. President, I have one request to make." "Ah!" said he, at once looking grace. "Well, what is it?" "That you suppress the infamous 'Chicago Times,'" was the rejoinder. After a brief pause, Mr. Lincoln asked her if she had ever tried to imagine how she would have felt, in some former administration to which she was opposed, if her favorite newspaper had been seized by the government, and suppressed. The lady replied that it was not a parallel case; that in circumstances like those then existing, when the nation was struggling for its very life, such utterances as were daily put forth in that journal should be suppressed by the strong hand of authority; that the cause of loyalty and good government demanded it. "I fear you do not fully comprehend," returned the President, "the danger of abridging the liberties of the people. Nothing but the very sternest necessity can ever justify it. A government had better go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardize in any degree, the common rights of its citizens." [p. 156-157]

I've never seen a historian cast doubt on the quote, but it is relevant to note it's anecdotal, not from Lincoln's writings. Oh, I believe he may have said something like that, in response to a fire-eating unionist, in the early months of 1864, with the mid-term elections safely over and the presidential campaign not yet begun, with the crisis of emancipation past and the draft riots quelled.

He could afford to speak that way, and it would be like him to pose as a leader carefully navigating a moderate path through the shoals of crisis. Always, Lincoln knew, there were men and women in the North who would have pursued a policy that would have been fatally radical and aggressive. Lincoln was savvy enough not only to keep their hands off the tiller, but to use them as a public foil, to put the shine on his image as a sober, sane leader. It seems he could manage this trick whether they were congressional leaders or ladies at a levee.

But in fact, his administration already had once shut down the offending newspaper -- and many others.

After editorials lashing the administration and expressing sympathy for Clement Vallandigham, the copperhead Ohio politician who had been arrested and banished for criticizing the administration and the war, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, on June 1, 1863, issued "General Order N. 84," which declared, in part:

On account of the repeated expression of disloyal and incendiary sentiments, the publication of the newspaper known as the Chicago Times is hereby suppressed.

Brig. Gen. Jacob Ammen, commanding the District of Illinois, was charged with the execution of this order, and under his authority the captain in command at Camp Douglas, Chicago, warned the newspaper's management they must not publish again, under penalty of military seizure.

Generals in uniform often lacked the patience and philosophy to distinguish between treason or support of the rebellion, on the one hand, and right to criticize civil and military acts of the government, on the other. As a result, military authorities in the North often carried out presidential directives more heavy-handedly than Lincoln and his cabinet intended. Or at least the Administration found it convenient to present matters as such.

After learning of the orders to suppress the "Times," Lincoln wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

I have received additional despatches, which, with former ones, induce me to believe we should revoke or suspend the order suspending the Chicago 'Times'; and if you concur in opinion, please have it done.

The paper resumed publication. But a year later, Lincoln revealed his ambivalence about the matter in a letter to his congressional ally Isaac N. Arnold:

In regard to the order of General Burnside suspending the Chicago "Times," now nearly a year ago, I can only say I was embarrassed with the question between what was due to the military service on the one hand, and the liberty of the press on the other, ... I am far from certain today that the revocation was not right.

Using embarrassed here in the older sense of "perplexed, thrown into doubt."

Under cover of a congressional act of Aug. 6, 1861, authorizing the President to direct the seizure of anyone who was “aiding, or abetting, or promoting ... insurrection,” the Lincoln government had begun shutting down the opposition press. Court martials were authorized in the cases of newspapers that printed information considered to have aided the enemy. Telegraph wires out of Washington, which the major daily newspapers relied on for their news of the war and the government, were subject to State Department censorship. On August 16 charges of disloyalty for alleged pro-Southernism had been brought in United States Circuit Court against the "New York Journal of Commerce," "Daily News," "Day Book," "Freeman’s Journal," and the "Brooklyn Eagle." On August 21 the federal government ordered that copies of the New York newspapers that had been suppressed should not be carried by the mails. Suppressions continued August 22 in New York, New York; Canton, Ohio; and Philadelphia. On September 18 the Louisville, Kentucky "Courier" was banned from the mails, and its offices were seized the next day by federal authorities.

Even a small-town paper like the "Jeffersonian," in the little borough of West Chester, Pennsylvania (pop. 4,000), could feel the government's wrath. The federal authorities in Philadelphia shut it down in September 1861 after reporting critical of the administration and the conduct of the First Bull Run battle. The Philadelphia "Bulletin" justified this suppression:

The principal circulation of the Jeffersonian was in the lower part of Chester County and along the Maryland line. Many of the people even upon this side of the line are touched with Secession sentiment. They take but one newspaper, frequently, and they are, of course, greatly influenced by its statements and opinions. The mischief that can be accomplished by a persistent enemy of the Government, under such circumstances, will be appreciated.

Not long after the conversation Carpenter reported, and the now-widely cited quote about "extreme of toleration," another newspaper got into hot water with the administration. This time, Lincoln went directly and personally to the military authorities to shut it down.

In May, the battles began again, this time with Grant in charge in the East, and the casualty list of dead and wounded skyrocketed. The North fought to bloody stalemates in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania, and saw terrible waste of lives in the botched Bermuda Hundred campaign.

The anti-war New York "World" on May 18 published a false presidential proclamation listing the recent battles and setting aside a day for public humiliation and prayer. It also printed a false call for conscription of 400,000 men. [A conscription was looming, in fact, but this wasn't it.]

The day it appeared, Lincoln sent Gen. John A. Dix an order:

Whereas, there has been wickedly and traitorously printed and published this morning, in the New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce, ... a false and spurious proclamation purported to be signed by the President ... which publication is of a treasonable nature, designed to give aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and to the rebels now at war against the Government and their aiders and abettors, you are therefore hereby commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison ... the editors, proprietors and publishers of the aforesaid newspapers, and all such persons as, after public notice has been given of the falsehood of said publication, print and publish the same with intent to give aid and comfort to the enemy; and you will hold the persons so arrested in close custody until they can be brought to trial before a military commission for their offense. You will also take possession by military force, of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce, and hold the same until further orders, and prohibit any further publication therefrom.

Dix took newspaper managers into custody. He seized the newspaper offices and held them under military guard for three days.

The "extreme of toleration" quote is an unusual one in Lincoln's corpus. Because during the war Lincoln more often turned his eloquence to justifying civil repressions than to condemning them.

For instance, he wrote in June 1863 to Erastus Corning and others in New York state who had petitioned against Lincoln's trampling of civil liberties in the name of war for the Union. Lincoln took the petition as an opportunity to reply with a public letter explaining his view of these things.

Place, if you can, these ideas in the head of the current incumbent of the White House, and consider the consequences if he were to govern with them in mind. Imagine the safety of a dissident, a Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky, or Cindy Sheehan, in Lincoln's America:

...[A]rrests are made, not so much for what has been done, as for what probably would be done. ... The man who stands by and says nothing when the peril of his Government is discussed, cannot be misunderstood. If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy; much more, if he talks ambiguously -- talks for his country with 'buts' and 'ifs' and 'ands.'

And elsewhere:

... [H]e who dissuades one man from volunteering, or induces one soldier to desert, weakens the Union cause as much as he who kills a Union soldier in battle. Yet this dissuasion or inducement may be so conducted as to be no defined crime of which any civil court would take cognizance.

Harsh measures for perilous times? Lincoln's got that argument covered in honey:

Nor am I able to appreciate the danger ... that the American people will, by means of military arrests during the rebellion, lose the right of public discussion, the liberty of speech and the press, the law of evidence, trial by jury, and Habeas corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future which I trust lies before them, any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life.

The letter reveals an eloquent, lawyerly, and ruthless mind that is willing to bend the Constitution and ignore basic rights for the sake of winning the war. Habeas corpus only matters, Lincoln says, up to the point it becomes an impediment to the persistence of the government that guarantees its citizens habeas corpus. In 1861, he writes,

[Southern] sympathizers pervaded all departments of the Government and nearly all communities of the people. From this material, under cover of 'liberty of speech,' 'liberty of the press,' and 'habeas corpus,' they hoped to keep on foot among us a most efficient corps of spies, informers, suppliers, and aiders and abettors of their cause in a thousand ways. They knew that in times such as they were inaugurating, by the Constitution itself, the 'habeas corpus' might be suspended; but they also knew they had friends who would make a question as to who was to suspend it; meanwhile, their spies and others might remain at large to help their cause. Or, if, as has happened, the Executive should suspend the writ, without ruinous waste of time, instances of arresting innocent persons might occur, as are always likely to occur in such cases; and then a clamour could be raised in regard to this, which might be, at least, of some service to the insurgent cause. It needed no very keen perception to discover this part of the enemy's programme, so soon as, by open hostilities, their machinery was fairly put in motion. Yet, thoroughly imbued with a reverence for the guaranteed rights of individuals, I was slow to adopt the strong measures which by degrees I had been forced to regard as being within the exceptions of the Constitution, and as indispensible to the public safety."

Read it like Lincoln has to be read -- with an eye to the key phrase, which likely will be a subtle one: "... strong measures which by degrees I had been forced to regard as being within the exceptions of the Constitution ..." If you want an image what Lincoln would have done had he, not Bush, been president at 9/11, here's a clue:

Of how little value the constitutional provisions I have quoted will be rendered, if arrests shall never be made until defined crimes shall have been committed, may be illustrated by a few notable examples. Gen. John C. Breckenridge, Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Gen. John B. Magruder, Gen. William B. Preston, Gen. Simon B. Buckner, and Commodore Franklin Buchanan, now occupying the very highest places in the Rebel war service, were all within the power of the Government since the Rebellion began, and were nearly as well known to be traitors then as now. Unquestionably if we had seized and held them, the insurgent cause would be much weaker. But no one of them had then committed any crime defined in the law. Every one of them, if arrested, would have been discharged on habeas corpus were the writ allowed to operate. In view of these and similar cases, I think the time not unlikely to come when I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.

And here's another:

Mr. Vallandigham avows his hostility to the war on the part of the Union; and his arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops, to encourage desertions from the army, and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it. He was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the administration, or the personal interests of the commanding general; but because he was damaging the army, upon the existence, and vigor of which, the life of the nation depends. He was warring upon the military; and this gave the military constitutional jurisdiction to lay hands upon him ....

Long experience has shown that armies can not be maintained unless desertion shall be punished by the severe penalty of death. The case requires, and the law and the constitution, sanction this punishment. Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley 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 feeling, till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy, that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked administration of a contemptable 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.

And the Great Emancipator shows his political skill, in a way Bush and Cheney can only envy and never hope to match, in pulling the rug out from under the Democratic opposition without stepping down from his own high ground:

In giving the resolutions that earnest consideration which you request of me, I can not overlook the fact that the meeting speak as "Democrats." Nor can I, with full respect for their known intelligence, and the fairly presumed deliberation with which they prepared their resolutions, be permitted to suppose that this occurred by accident, or in any way other than that they preferred to designate themselves "democrats" rather than "American citizens." In this time of national peril I would have preferred to meet you upon a level one step higher than any party platform; because I am sure that from such more elevated position, we could do better battle for the country we all love, than we possibly can from those lower ones, where from the force of habit, the prejudices of the past, and selfish hopes of the future, we are sure to expend much of our ingenuity and strength, in finding fault with, and aiming blows at each other. But since you have denied me this, I will yet be thankful, for the country’s sake, that not all democrats have done so.

Truly, it's one of the great pieces of political writing in American history -- and one of the most nefarious.

If you're looking for a quote upholding civil liberties and freedom in a time of desperate war, a better choice than Lincoln would be Supreme Court Justice Robert C. Grier, who presided over the circuit that heard the case of the West Chester "Jeffersonian's" publisher. He charged the jury that there was no justification for the seizure, and that the district attorney had no power to issue a writ ordering the seizure. The power to issue writs, he told them, belongs to the courts alone.

No one can pretend that our law was changed by the mere fact of the rebellion. The very purpose of law is to set a rule that may remain fixed and immovable among the disturbances of society, and that shall be the standard of judging them. ... If it yielded to excitements it would be judged by them, instead of being their judge.

While admitting neither Churchill nor Lincoln was perfect in his adherence to these principles, Sullivan nonetheless finds them superior to our current crop of leaders.

If Lincoln could say this in the middle of the bloodiest conflict in American history, why cannot Bush and Blair say it today?

He's right; the modern leaders lack the eloquence of their forebears. But Lincoln said a great many things during that conflict.

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