Thursday, June 09, 2005

The MSM and Lincoln

I'm reading a book I find exceedingly fascinating. It's called American Brutus, and it's a fairly new biography of John Wilkes Booth, by Michael W. Kauffman. John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln are two figures about which most of us think we know a lot--all those US History courses we're required to take do cover the events, after all. But, unless you are a history buff (which I never was, but am beginning to be), I doubt you're familiar with the details this book describes.

Booth was a figure of huge complexity, one of the most famous actors of his day and part of an acting family as famous as the later Barrymores, as well as a person of great charm and intelligence (not to mention extraordinary handsomeness--see the photo on the cover). I used to think I knew what Booth's motive was--he was a Southern sympathizer--but that's an extreme oversimplification. The truth, as usual, is not only more complex, it's more interesting--and more relevant to our times. But you'll have to read the book to find that out (no, I don't get a commission).

Lincoln was a figure who was widely reviled in his time for causing the war, and for policies instituted during it. I'd known that. But the book brings these facts alive by quoting contemporary sources in a way that makes the criticism seem--well, familiar (although the civic turmoil seems to have been even more extreme than at present):

The Civil War was unlike anything known in modern times, and the nation came closer to collapse than most people realize today. Emancipation of slaves, confiscation of property, and the draft often led to deadly clashes between the public and civil authorities. The political storm threatened not only the federal government, but state governments as well...In the middle stood Abraham Lincoln, blamed for the war and fired upon from all sides. It was not just the fringe element who hated the president; judges, senators, editors, and otherwise respectable citizens left no doubt of their contempt for him as well. One senator compared Lincoln to the tyrants of history, saying "They are all buried beneath the wave of oblivion compared to what this man of yesterday, this Abraham Lincoln, that neither you nor I ever heard of four years ago, has chosen to exercise..." To that senator and countless citizens, Abraham Lincoln was the American Caesar, out to establish a new empire from the ashes of a republic.

Thus, the name of the book: American Brutus, which is how Booth saw himself. Some newspapers of the time even called for Lincoln's assassination, explicitly invoking the Brutus comparison.

The papers of Europe also got into the act of over-the-top criticism of Lincoln. Here's the London Times, reprinted in an Indianapolis paper of the time:

Mr. Lincoln and his party have been dominant as no set of men ever were before in a land peopled by the English race. They have governed twenty millions of their countrymen with a revolutionary freedom from the trammels of law.

After the assassination, however, some newspapers that had formerly been fiercely anti-Lincoln backtracked and suddenly decided he was a hero after all. Some papers which had been most critical of Lincoln were set on by angry mobs. This was part of a pattern of post-assassination violence in which some who were heard to speak out in favor Booth's act were lynched. Although there's no record of the number of such deaths, the author believes it was in the hundreds.

Here is how Europe and Canada reacted:

Throughout most of the civilized world, foreign leaders expressed horror at the assassination and sympathy for the nation's loss. But in Montreal, reactions were mixed. Canadian officials offered condolences, and a great many citizens draped their buildings in mourning. But others celebrated openly, and their revelry caused the U.S. consul to remark that "treason has transformed them to brutes, and seems to have eradicated from their breasts all sense of moral right." He would have been deeply offended by an editorial in the London Examiner that said, "It must be remembered that atrocious as was Booth's deed, his 'sic semper tyrannis' was literally justified by the facts. The man he killed had murdered the Constitution of the United States, had contradicted and set at naught the principles under which the States came together, had practically denied the competence of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and overthrown all for which Washington fought and Patrick Henry spoke."

Plus ca change...


At 12:25 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear neo-neocon,

another great post. You have a great weblog. Lincoln made tons of mistakes, by the way, and had to change course over and over again. I see the current administration doing the same things. I doubt the Lincoln administration or Lincoln himself was up front about the about faces he took either. But I would love to be proved wrong.

I myself self-identify as both a liberal and a neo-conservative. These are supposed to be mutually exclusive categories, but I'm not clear why that must be so.

All the best.

At 12:58 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The search continues for slaves owned by Abe. Somewhere in some musty record it will be suggested that he probably could have been a slave owner. Then even the descendants of post civil war immigrant boat people will have to pay repirations. I think Hillary and Howard should make this the main plank of the Democratic party platform.
an anonymous wag

At 1:04 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karl Marx loved Lincoln, though.

so, you see? If you do anything to help free the slaves, you must be a filthy Communist.

At 1:53 PM, June 09, 2005, Blogger Solomon2 said...

Yes, the newspapers treated Lincoln horribly. Who ever heard of someone going to war out of a concern for human rights, not just using such concerns for wealth and power? Almost the entire ruling class of Europe was incensed. And after the war, they were sure Lincoln or his successors would use the huge Union Army to invade Canada and conquer Mexico.

When that didn't happen, Europe responded by...saying nothing! The British very quietly paid compensation for damages incurred upon the Union by British-build warships of the Confederacy. But few in Europe would admit that what had just happened was a clear and true application of American moral superiority. That's just about the time the French started openly hating us...

At 2:24 PM, June 09, 2005, Blogger karrde said...

It's kind of curious--Lincoln's Presidency was a turning point in relations between the Federal gov't and the States.

On small way of grasping this is the observation that the words "United States" were plural before that time, and singular afterwards...

I wasn't aware of the uniqueness of the War Between the States, and the way that Europe responded to it.

The very idea of a war to settle a moral issue is surprising, now that I think about it. Surprising, but very American.

It is telling that the rest of the world expected Lincoln to create a new empire--that is what every military move by a European power had been about for the last three centuries.

At 2:36 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born fewer than 100 miles from the Great Emancipator's boyhood home in New Salem, Illinois. I lived within the circuit he rode as a lawyer. Legendary tales of Abe are part of boyhood in my home town.

It is certainly true that Honest Abe saw the evil of slavery. He also maintained enormous respect for Johnny Reb throughout the course of the war.

The greatest tragedy of American history is the assassination of Abe. Had he lived, perhaps we would have been spared the humiliation of the South that was Reconstruction, and perhaps we would have found another way entirely in relations between the races.

I feel almost as though I know this man, having heard and re-heard tales of his life so many thousands of times, from the stories my father told me to the formal education of college.

He was elected, by the way, to be the fall guy. Like Ronald Reagan, he was thought by the intellectual elite in the Northeast to be a fool. God bless you, honest Abe!

At 3:36 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with any neat parallel between Lincoln then and Bush now, and Booth then and the Left lynch Bush mobster now is that Lincolns deprdations of American liberties were real - Bush's merely imagined.

Fantasy is not the same as reality.

And the overweening New Deal constitution built on precedents from other "emergency" eras like WWI and the Civil War. Bush show no sign of building such a lasting legacy, other than building representative government in the ME - a very different prospect.

At 3:37 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The slander aimed at Abe Lincoln was astonishing. IIRC George McClellan called him the "original gorilla" in one of his letters.

Interesting fact. I'm reading a dual biography of Lee and Jackson right now. The author indicates that union soldiers marching toward the battlield of First Bull Run, just months after secession, where freeing slaves. So, yeah, the war really was against slavery.

-N. O'Brain

At 4:13 PM, June 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please let me know that I am among the first to guess your secret by deleting my comment. You are not who you claim to be. Not a spoof, really. Just too good to be true. My guess is that you are another Andrew Sullivan, but you did not want to live with comparisons so you made up your personal statistics. You are entirely too brilliant and well adjusted to have the background you claim. Whatever (and whomever) you are, I enjoy your blog and give it my highest rating.

At 4:22 PM, June 09, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

Your thoughts remind us of why it is so important to study, and know, our history. And why it is so sad that so many primary and secondary schools today either want to change it or downgrade it to second tier status.

At 9:10 PM, June 09, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

In my reading of Lincoln's various biographies, I came to believe that Lincoln the dabbler in mathematics and member of the bar saw the office of president as a duty first, and ...

...not much more besides.

He had to sneak into D.C. to be inaugerated for his first term. As in travel incognito (as much as one of the tallest men in North America could) accompanied by bodyguards.

He was a surveyor, too. You have to watch those people closely. They are tied to real ground, real solutions, in ways that many people will never understand.

Lincoln was a self-taught student of law and more importantly of the underlying principles and common law behind our civic codes and government. He believed deeply in the responsibility inherent in citizenship.

There is not, and never was, a clause in the Constitution remotely resembling a "Gentlemen's Agreement" as was proposed by the Southern politicians.

Constitutional democtatic republics do not run on rails. They require the faith and effort of the represented to function at all, much less in an efficient and just manner.

Lincoln recognised that to fulfill his first duty - to defend the constitution, and by extension the existence of the Union itself, he had to act in ways that violated some very basic mechanisms of the document. His other option was to allow the Union to fall. Logic dictated his action.

Strange bird - but the necessary man for the time.

At 10:25 PM, June 09, 2005, Blogger Callimachus said...

Lincoln offers a model, good or bad, for the role of a president in times when the nation sails into murky waters and faces conditions not imagined when the laws were written.

Like Bush in 2001, Lincoln in 1861 faced a legal fog in defining his enemy, and delineating his war. Even among many people in the North, the power of a state to secede from the union was held to be a legal right. The Constitution, as read by many, was seen as silent, or ambiguous, on the issue. A range of positions could be defended. Buchanan's attorney general, for instance, had investigated the laws and concluded that, while the secession was not legal, the government had no authority to stop it.

Lincoln's official position was that the Confederacy did not exist and that he was suppressing an internal rebellion. Yet in practice, he treated the South as a sovereign power. He blockaded its coast. His administration acknowledged its sea-rovers as privateers and not as pirates. When rebels invaded the North and were captured at Gettysburg they were treated as POWs, not as traitors to be hanged for treason, because they were commanded by officers holding commissions from the Confederate government.

In fact, Lincoln made every attempt to have it both ways, because his powers, as president, were limited differently in each case. Whichever situation gave him what he needed, that is how he painted the war/rebellion in that case.

He did so to recruit and maintain a large standing army to fight a modern war, and in doing so he broke the Constitution he had sworn to uphold, which was structured to provide temporary, minute-man armies (in a system little changed since King Alfred's aldormen led the Anglo-Saxon fyrd to repel Viking marauders).

He did so in sweeping aside civil rights, including habeas corpus, and filling Northern jails with men never charged with any crime. He did so in full knowledge that his nation was full of dissent, and his agents couldn't, or didn't care to, distinguish honest loyal opposition from active treason.

Lincoln had at his back a Congress driven by his allies. And he managed to skillfully avoid the courts. When he couldn't avoid them, he defied them. In the Merryman case in 1861, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney denounced the notion of arbitrary military arrest and defended civil liberties, and pointed out that only Congress had the right to suspend habeas corpus. And he admitted he could do nothing to enforce his ruling in the face of a military force "too strong for me to overcome." Taney wrote as defiantly as any anti-Bush zealot today. And the cause for his wrath was more immediate and dangerous than the Patriot Act:

“I can only say that if the authority under which the constitution has confided to the judicial department and judicial officers, may thus, upon any pretext or under any circumstances, be usurped by the military power, at its discretion, the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found.”

Lincoln wrote out a standing order for Taney's arrest, but it was never served. But Merryman set the tone and left it to the justices to decide whether to provoke fights, legitimate or not, that they had no power to win.

Lincoln got a break when an important case came to Justice James M. Wayne, who was perhaps the staunchest war supporter on the Court. In U.S. v. Colonel Gorman Wayne upheld Lincoln’s extra-legal (at best) recruiting drive in 1861 and its retroactive endorsement by Congress. “It is my opinion,” Wayne ruled, “that Congress has constitutional power to legalize and confirm executive acts, proclamations, and orders done for the public good, although they were not, when done, authorized by any existing laws.”

Even some who supported the Northern cause blanched at this notion, but it was in keeping with the general spirit of the administration and the pro-war press, which was to “preserve the union at all costs.”

Lincoln used his presidency to pack the Supreme Court with justices who would be more sympathetic to his purposes. Three of five justices who sustained the administration in the important Prize case of 1863 were new Lincoln appointments.

But the full question of whether the Constitution gave the president a special power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus during wartime never got to the Court. In large part that's because the administration made sure it didn't. It had a valid fear that the Court would rule against there being such a power under the Constitution, and such a ruling would undermine the war effort. On the other hand, by keeping the matter away from the Court, the administration could largely accomplish its policy.

Opposition, especially in the press, clamored for a test case to settle whether the arbitrary arrests were legal. Secretary of War Stanton thought it would be wise to do so, too, but Attorney General Bates talked him out of it. In a letter of Jan. 31, 1863, Bates wrote to Stanton that a Supreme Court decision against the habeas corpus policy “would inflict upon the Administration a serious injury,” and would do more good to the rebels “than the worst defeat our armies have yet sustained.”

Only after victory was secure, and only gradually and tentatively at first, did the Supreme Court begin to put the nation back on a Constitutional basis, which Lincoln and the Radicals in Congress had disrupted. Both Lincoln and Taney were dead by this time.

Lincoln had done what was necessary to his purpose, which he saw as saving America's future, and he let the lawmakers catch up as they would. Or he left it to the courts to undo the changes long after they ceased to be necessary. Some of them were never undone, and America after 1865 was never again ruled by the government that had been created in 1787.

History forgives him these transgressions (though they are more bitterly remembered in the South) because the war he led America into had a great (if unintended) result of freeing slaves. It gave them an imperfect freedom, to be sure. The backlash brought explosive violence into their lives. And real civil rights didn't come their way for another century.

Yet however imperfectly he did it, Lincoln defeated slavery -- an institution that had enjoyed the protection and support of the U.S. government until then. (Even so radical an anti-South man as Thad Stevens once took a case on behalf of a master reclaiming his runaway slave.) And history gives him that honor and Americans rank him among their greatest presidents.

At 12:34 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

Callimachus -


"Having it both ways" is the operating mode of true professional politicians, anyway. The stakes involved in 1861 were different - and horrible - but Lincoln's tactics were not too terribly removed in spirit from the gyrations any representative or senator will attempt if they really desire something. Or corporate lawyer or accountant, as far as that goes.

I don't have my Whitman bio (The Prairie Years/The War Years) to hand, but in it Lincoln's position on slavery and the black man was described as accepting that it was a fundamental injustice when viewed against the constitutional principle of "all men are created equal". He compartmentalized the fact, like any practical politician would in his time.

At 1:03 AM, June 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Carl Sandburg bio, not Whitman. Good one though.

At 2:52 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger Callimachus said...

Ben Butler, Fremont, maybe a few others, tried to make it an abolition war in 1861; Lincoln firmly put them in their place. His key quote is something like, if he could save the union without freeing a single slave, he would; if he could save it freeing all the slaves, he would.

Of course, with any politician who intends to win, you have to take his public statements as likely trimmed to the tenor of voters' opinions. You didn't need a Gallup back then to know what most white Northerners thought about race.

I think Lincoln personally was a little more of a slavery opponent than he let on, but not much more. Anyway, he was a strict colonizationist, like his mentor, Clay: free them, and send them all to Haiti or Africa or Yucatan.

[See Russell for what those Union soldiers were doing on the way to Bull Run. They hardly deserve the name "soldiers" at that point]

At 2:56 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger Callimachus said...

Dean, agreed. I had a Georgia girlfriend who couldn't stand the mention of the man's name. But I think he "grew" in office more than any president we've ever had. He also had personal tragedy lapping at his life. Plus he was a helluva crafty writer. Probably the best to ever sit in the White House.

At 2:57 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger Callimachus said...

Already in Mencken's day, we'd lost Lincoln the man in the glare of the cult of Linconiana. A sad loss; because the man is more like us than the icon. Billy Herndon is the antidote for a lot of that.

At 3:42 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger Final Historian said...

Am I the only one here who has a nagging suspicion that Lincoln read Machiavelli's "The Prince." For all his idealism, Honest Abe was a down-to-earth pragmatist, who managed to accomplish a lot of very difficult deeds. I can think of people leaders in history as flexibile or open-minded as he.

At 10:45 AM, June 11, 2005, Blogger Unknown said...

A couple students I work with wrote papers on Euro and US press and their treatment of Lincoln. If you think Bush is the most reviled your history.

The Brits critized him for denying autonomy to the South right after the colonists themselves fought for autonomy from England. Europe was worried about the cotton trade. And everybody wondered how the brutish, vulgar Americans could ever build a country after their "unecessary" and bloody war.

I began to wonder if Booth was egged on by this atmosphere and what this portends in today's poisoned atmosphere.


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