As we debate the constitutional wartime powers of the president, its instructive, and exciting, to read a new book called Lincolns Wrath, by Jeffrey Manber and Neil Dahlstrom (Sourcebooks). It will come as a shock to anyone who still believes in the myth of the Great Emancipator.
A shock, I say, because Lincoln has been enshrined as the very incarnation of freedom. To many people, calling him a destroyer of freedom sounds not just wrong, but impossible, paradoxical, bafflingly counterintuitive. What on earth can you mean?
John Hodgson knew what it meant. The book tells how he ran afoul of the Lincoln administration for the crime of publishing his opinions.
Lincoln took the view that his vast reservoir of powers, as one of his admirers has called them, included suppressing any critics and any opposition press. What about the First Amendment? Lincoln never directly mentioned it; in all his many speeches extolling liberty, I dont recall a single word about the need for freedom of speech or a free press. In this he stands in striking contrast to Jefferson.
Lincoln explained that just as often a limb must be amputated to save a life, by analogy measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation. So the nation could be saved only by amputating several limbs of the Constitution.
Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on his own authority; the first Republican Congress obligingly passed an act authorizing the confiscation of private property used in aid of the rebellion. Since the Republicans regarded any failure to support his war as pro-Confederate treason, this meant, in practice, the seizure and destruction of printing presses of hundreds of Democratic newspapers. More than 10,000 dissenters were also arbitrarily arrested, without warrants or specified charges, and held without trial.
This reign of terror wasnt conducted by government agents alone. Much of the dirty work was done by mobs and rioters, who knew they too could act with impunity, even enjoying Lincolns tacit approval. Though he never openly endorsed mob violence, he did nothing about it and never condemned it.
Lincoln gave the impression he didnt even notice it. He kept his own role in it carefully out of view. He knew that Republican fanaticism was on his side, and he had no need to sully himself by praising it. A useful partnership between a Republican government and private initiative (sound familiar?) took care of everything for him.
Lincoln had a keen sense of the importance of public opinion. With public sentiment, he said in 1858, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. In a perverse way, his respect for public opinion also taught him the necessity of controlling it by persuasion, if possible, but by force, if necessary, and also, at times, by bribery and patronage. He secretly paid friendly publishers and sometimes wrote anonymously for them. (During his run for the presidency, Lincolns Wrath notes, he himself held secret ownership of one German-language paper, through which he cultivated the support of the large body of German immigrants in the West at that time.)
In West Chester, Pennsylvania, one brave publisher named John Hodgson stood up to the pressure. Lincolns Wrath is largely his untold story.
After a mob wrecked his press in August 1861, and Federal officials demanded what was left of it a week later, Hodgson decided to fight back. He sued the officials in court and eventually won; they claimed they were only acting under Lincolns orders (sound familiar?) but failed to prove his direct involvement. Like Macbeth, he couldnt be tied to the crime; but his moral responsibility is clear.
Ironically, Hodgsons paper was called the Jeffersonian. It stood for the constitutional principles Lincoln was busy amputating principles that would have made Jefferson himself eligible for Republican arrest. Democrats saw their party as the party of Jefferson and limited Federal power, and the Republicans as the party of expansive centralized power in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists, and the Whigs.
In effect if not in fact, Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to make the United States a one-party system, in which dissent could be treated as rebellion and treason. Today it often seems that Lincolns party hasnt changed much.
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