McCarthyism and Lincolnism
April 26, 2001
still recall the McCarthy era with shudders, as they recall
the way Wisconsins Senator Joseph McCarthy smeared innocent people with
baseless charges of Communism, ruining lives and careers with abandon.
Thats the way the story is usually told, anyway. We still use the word
McCarthyism for reckless assaults on freedom of speech and thought.
Can anyone name McCarthys victims?
How many were there, really? And were they all innocent?
The truth is that McCarthy did very little
damage. He did make some wild overstatements, but he was dealing specifically
with the problem of Communist infiltration of the federal government. During
Franklin Roosevelts administration, the Soviet Union was welcomed as an
ally of the United States, and the bloody tyrant Joseph Stalin was affectionately
nicknamed Uncle Joe. American Communists and sympathizers
eagerly moved into government jobs; at least two Soviet agents Alger Hiss
and Harry Dexter White had Roosevelts ear.
McCarthy wasnt interested in
persecuting people in private life; his purpose was to get Stalins little
helpers out of the U.S. Government. And he did strike fear into the hearts of
liberals who, taking their lead from Roosevelt himself, had been guilty of flirting
Despite liberal hysteria about
McCarthys hysteria, there was nothing for ordinary people to
be hysterical about. Civil liberties were safe; there were few false or arbitrary
arrests; McCarthy had little power to hurt anyone if he had wanted to.
The average educated American that is
to say, each of us, in his dull and passive moments would be startled to
learn that Abraham Lincoln was a greater menace to civil liberties than the
infamous McCarthy. Lincolns most recent biographer, David Herbert Donald,
observes that the four years of Lincolns presidency saw greater
infringements on individual liberties than in any other period in American
Lincolns most notable transgression
was his suspension of the privilege of habeas corpus, an emergency measure that
enabled the government to make thousands of arbitrary arrests without
charges, without trials. Since the Constitution lists the power to suspend habeas
corpus among the powers of Congress, Lincoln was usurping a legislative
prerogative. McCarthy never did anything approaching this.
Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that
Lincolns act was in violation of the Constitution. Lincoln, said Taney, was
exercising executive, legislative, and judicial powers simultaneously that
is, acting as a dictator, not as a constitutional executive.
Lincoln ignored Taneys ruling,
continued the arbitrary arrests, and even wrote an order to arrest Taney himself
one of the most high-handed acts of any American president. McCarthy
never did or could have wielded such power.
Marylands state legislature rejected Lincolns request for troops,
supplies, and money, condemning his war as unconstitutional,
Lincoln ordered the arrest of 31 of the legislators, along with the mayor of
Baltimore and a Maryland congressman. He installed a puppet government in the
state for the duration of the war. So much for government of the people, by
the people, for the people. In the course of the war thousands of critics of
the government were jailed and hundreds of newspapers were shut down.
Northerners who objected to the war on the Confederacy were smeared as
Copperheads and traitors. All these measures were
far beyond the capacity, or the aspirations, of McCarthy.
It was Abraham Lincoln, not Joseph McCarthy,
who conducted a reign of terror, with thousands of real victims. So
why do liberals still use McCarthy, not Lincoln, as a symbol of political
repression? Shouldnt they warn us against Lincolnism?
Ah, but McCarthy was fighting for a
reactionary cause anti-Communism. And Lincoln was
fighting for progressive causes strong centralized
government and (later) the abolition of slavery. If you crack down on liberty for
what liberals consider progressive reasons, your sins are forgiven.
Thats also why liberals forgave Stalin so much. As Lenin said, you
cant make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
Lincoln once argued that it might be necessary
to violate part of the Constitution in order to save the whole. By that reasoning, a
man who is sworn to uphold the Constitution could justify violating 99 per cent of
Joe McCarthy had no need of such arguments,
because he never found it necessary to violate anyones
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