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Whose Idea Was It?

June 14, 2001

In my recent columns and speeches on Abraham Lincoln, I’ve several times repeated the story that in 1861, shortly after taking office, Lincoln issued an order for the arrest of Chief Justice Roger Taney. If true, it’s one of the most high-handed acts of any American president.

Now, to my chagrin, this story has been called in question. Mr. Joseph Eros of New York City has done some intense research, and he finds it very dubious.

My chief source for the story was Harold Hyman’s 1973 book A More Perfect Union. But Mr. Eros says that Hyman seems to have misread a key document. Hyman mistakenly thought the story originated with Francis Lieber, a distinguished lawyer in Lincoln’s inner circle. It turns out that the only real source was Ward Hill Lamon.

Lamon was also a lawyer, of sorts, but his legal talents appear to have been rather meager. He served Lincoln as federal marshal for Washington, D.C., but was more important as Lincoln’s pal (they swapped off-color jokes) and bodyguard. He carried an assortment of weapons — pistols, knives, brass knuckles, even a slingshot. Always ready for a brawl, Lincoln’s burly friend was described by the poet James Russell Lowell as “a vulgar fellow.” On one election night he slept on the floor outside Lincoln’s door, wearing his pistols and knives. Lincoln’s carelessness about his own safety distressed him so much that he once threatened to quit. He was a colorful, eccentric, and endearing blowhard, as even the shortest sketch makes clear. Lincoln also loved his singing.

[Breaker quote: Lincoln's crazy 
friend]The disputed story involves an undated memorandum in which Lamon recalled that Lincoln had authorized him to arrest Taney. His account of the order is so short and vague as to lack credibility. Mr. Eros reasonably argues that Lamon should have been more detailed and specific if the story was true. Arresting a chief justice, after all, would be a momentous step. But Lamon merely said the order was never executed, added that he “never regretted” having received this “discretionary power,” and dropped the subject.

Mr. Eros has performed a real service to Lincoln scholarship by showing how flimsy the story is. All the same, without belittling his careful labors, a flimsy story may contain a grain of truth.

Why would Lamon invent such a story? He seems to have been an honest man, very loyal to Lincoln and even willing to risk his life to protect him. It seems unlikely that he would tell an outright lie discreditable to his friend and boss.

We know that Lincoln took great liberties with the Constitution, and Lamon eagerly assisted him in his arbitrary arrests, even of public officials; we read that Lamon once “offered to arrest” a Maryland congressman who supported secession. Maybe Lincoln and Lamon discussed arresting Taney, and Lamon later remembered (or misremembered) Lincoln’s complaints about Taney as a directive to jail him.

Taney himself seems to have expected Lincoln to arrest him after he ruled some of Lincoln’s actions unconstitutional. It’s possible that he had gotten wind of Lincoln’s intentions.

On the other hand, Lamon seems to have been a rough-hewn, blustering man who might have wanted to inflate his own importance in Lincoln’s administration. Without consciously lying, he could have exaggerated his role.

Suppose the idea of arresting Taney was Lamon’s own, and he later ascribed it to Lincoln. It’s easy to imagine Lincoln hearing the outrageous suggestion of his overzealous friend and, perhaps with a faint smile, tactfully deflecting it, while allowing Lamon to believe he was seriously contemplating arresting the chief justice of the United States.

The fatuous Lamon might have walked away from the conversation congratulating himself on his brainstorm, thinking he’d persuaded Lincoln. Suppose, in his excitement, he’d blabbed the idea to others, and in gossip-crazed Washington, it soon reached Taney. If so, Lamon’s imagination later ran away with him, and he turned the facts around, crediting the idea to Lincoln (who wouldn’t have wanted credit).

That’s only one possibility, and we’ll never know if it happened quite that way. We needn’t posit villainy — only a loose cannon and cheerful braggart, the sort of well-meaning guy who always gets his friends into trouble if they’re not careful.

Whatever the truth, history’s “facts” are often a lot less cut-and-dried than we assume.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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