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McCarthyism and Lincolnism

April 26, 2001

Old liberals still recall “the McCarthy era” with shudders, as they recall the way Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy smeared innocent people with baseless charges of Communism, ruining lives and careers with abandon. That’s 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 McCarthy’s 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 Roosevelt’s 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 Roosevelt’s ear.

McCarthy wasn’t interested in persecuting people in private life; his purpose was to get Stalin’s 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 with Communism.

Despite liberal hysteria about McCarthy’s “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. Lincoln’s most recent biographer, David Herbert Donald, observes that the four years of Lincoln’s presidency saw “greater infringements on individual liberties than in any other period in American history.”

Lincoln’s 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 Lincoln’s 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 Taney’s 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.

[Breaker quote: The liberals' 
double standards on repression]When Maryland’s state legislature rejected Lincoln’s 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? Shouldn’t 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. That’s also why liberals forgave Stalin so much. As Lenin said, you can’t 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 it.

Joe McCarthy had no need of such arguments, because he never found it “necessary” to violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications

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