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Stealing an Election

December 12, 2000

Both the major parties have been accusing each other of trying to “steal” the presidential election in Florida. But this mess is a clean process indeed compared to one that occurred in Maryland in 1861.

In May 1861 the Civil War was already raging. President Abraham Lincoln called on Maryland to send four regiments to fight for the Union cause. But the state was bitterly divided over the war.

Most Marylanders didn’t want their state to secede, but neither did they favor war. It is widely forgotten that a large body of American opinion held that the Confederate States had every right to secede from the Union and thought they should be allowed to go in peace. But to Lincoln, this view was “treason.” By Lincoln’s definition, most Americans, not just Southerners, probably qualified as traitors.

The Maryland state legislature replied to Lincoln’s summons for troops with a resolution condemning the war as “unconstitutional and repugnant to civilization,” adding that “for the sake of humanity we are for peace and reconciliation, and solemnly protest against this war, and will take no part in it.” The legislature also called “the present military occupation of Maryland” a “flagrant violation of the Constitution.”

[Breaker quote: Florida 
was nothing; remember Maryland?]Lincoln was infuriated. He sent informers to determine which members of the legislature were “disloyal” — i.e., opposed to war. On the night of September 12 he had federal troops arrest dozens of legislators and other prominent citizens (including the mayor of Baltimore and a Maryland congressman) he suspected of Southern sympathies. Since Lincoln had also suspended the right of habeas corpus, he claimed the power to arrest anyone arbitrarily, without specific charges and without a trial. When the chief justice of the United States, Roger Taney, had ruled that Lincoln had no constitutional power to do this, Lincoln had not only ignored the ruling but ordered Taney’s arrest too! (If he had gone through with this outrage, he might well have been impeached and removed from office.)

Having depleted the Maryland legislature, Lincoln moved to refill it with reliable Unionists. He stationed thousands of federal troops in the state and used them to crush dissent. As the historian Charles Adams writes in his book When in the Course of Human Events (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000): “In November there was an election, and to make sure only Union people were elected, all members of the Federal armed forces voted, even though they were not residents of the state. At the voting booths, other voters had to pass through platoons of Union soldiers who had bayonets affixed to their rifles.” Southern sympathizers attempting to vote were arrested.

By such means Lincoln got the legislature he wanted. “Democratic government ceased in Maryland for the duration of the war,” Adams notes. So much for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” which, you’ll recall, would “perish from the earth” if the Union lost. Lincoln’s devotion to his avowed principles may be measured by such practices, which showed the cynicism behind his gorgeous rhetoric.

The legend of Lincoln’s humanitarianism and love of freedom will not withstand an examination of his brutal wartime tactics, which shocked civilized Europe. The cruelty of the Union armies as they invaded the South is well known. What is less well known is how the Union terrorized itself.

Across the North Lincoln authorized tens of thousands of arbitrary arrests and shut down hundreds of newspapers for criticizing his war. His military governors sometimes ordered hangings, without trial, for minor offenses. Mere suspicion of disloyalty — very broadly defined — was enough to expose the individual to danger from his own government. It was a genuine reign of terror, an era of government by hysteria. The Constitution was effectively suspended.

Defenders of Lincoln and the Union cause contend that the Constitution doesn’t authorize states to secede. Actually, the Constitution says nothing about secession; it doesn’t authorize it, and it doesn’t forbid it.

But neither does the Constitution authorize its own abrogation for the purpose of resisting secession. It remains binding on the federal government, including the president, at all times, even during war and insurrection.

Lincoln argued in effect that the Constitution could be saved only if he could violate it. It was, and remains, a shabby argument; but it was, and remains, successful propaganda.

Joseph Sobran

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