Whose Idea Was It?
June 14, 2001
In my recent
columns and speeches on Abraham Lincoln, Ive 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, its 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
Hymans 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 Lincolns
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 Lincolns 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,
Lincolns burly friend was described by the poet James Russell Lowell as
a vulgar fellow. On one election night he slept on the floor outside
Lincolns door, wearing his pistols and knives. Lincolns 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.
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)
Lincolns complaints about Taney as a directive to jail him.
Taney himself seems to have expected Lincoln
to arrest him after he ruled some of Lincolns actions unconstitutional.
Its possible that he had gotten wind of Lincolns 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 Lincolns administration. Without consciously lying, he could have
exaggerated his role.
Suppose the idea of arresting Taney was
Lamons own, and he later ascribed it to Lincoln. Its 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
hed persuaded Lincoln. Suppose, in his excitement, hed blabbed the
idea to others, and in gossip-crazed Washington, it soon reached Taney. If so,
Lamons imagination later ran away with him, and he turned the facts
around, crediting the idea to Lincoln (who wouldnt have wanted credit).
Thats only one possibility, and
well never know if it happened quite that way. We neednt posit
villainy only a loose cannon and cheerful braggart, the sort of
well-meaning guy who always gets his friends into trouble if theyre not
Whatever the truth, historys
facts are often a lot less cut-and-dried than we assume.