Lincoln's warts

Kyle Smith:
In handing out their top honors next month, Academy Award voters seem set to implicitly condone the suspension of civil liberties, unlawful imprisonment and blatantly unconstitutional actions by a president who used wartime as an excuse for dictatorial acts.

That president was Abraham Lincoln, and Oscar voters are absolutely fine with “Lincoln” sanitizing his record.

But why the double standard? Voting members of the Academy are lining up to announce they won’t support “Zero Dark Thirty,” which they insulted last week by denying its director Kathryn Bigelow a Best Director nomination she was all but universally considered to have earned. Liberal actors Martin Sheen and Ed Asner have already stepped forward to protest the movie, which they believe advocates torture. Bigelow has said that the film honestly dramatizes various methods that were used by the CIA in the search for Osama bin Laden and stresses that “depiction is not endorsement.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” never comes close to making a moral defense of illegal acts, though it implies that in wartime some disquieting acts may be necessary. “Lincoln,” by completely ignoring unsavory facts, takes far more liberties with history. But Oscar voters know little about the Lincoln administration, so they’re much easier to mislead about what happened 150 years ago.

Immediately after the Civil War broke out, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus — the constitutional right every detained American enjoys to demand his day in court. Lincoln’s action gave him free rein to lock up without trial anyone labeled “disloyal,” indefinitely.

When John Merryman of Maryland was jailed for Confederate sympathies, the chief justice of the Supreme Court demanded he be given due process. The Constitution does grant the power to suspend habeas rights in the event of “invasion or rebellion,” but the Supreme Court (in this case, the chief justice, in an independent ruling) decided that such power resided not with the president, but with Congress. Lincoln simply ignored the order. Merryman remained imprisoned without trial for seven more weeks before he was released.

Three months after Merryman’s arrest, in the same state, Lincoln’s men were fooled by a false rumor that a majority of Maryland legislators were preparing to vote to secede. So they arrested several of them.

Lincoln went on to trash the First Amendment, issuing a declaration through Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that illegalized any “act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice.”


Don’t think torture wasn’t an issue during the Lincoln years. In the Civil War, the administration was as focused on finding and punishing deserters from the Union army as the Bush administration was in deterring and capturing terrorists. Many innocent persons, often British subjects, were mistakenly swept up in the dragnet, and they were often stripped naked and subjected to blasts of cold water for up to two hours, long enough to break the skin. This treatment was described as “usual” by those administering it. Some prisoners were handcuffed and suspended by the wrists.

There is much more.

I think Lincoln could have avoided the rebellion had he been honest about his intentions and power in the period between his election and being sworn in.  Since constitutionally the only way he could have banned slavery was to amend the document, and that would have been impossible if the Southern states stayed in the union his only other course would have been to pass a law which compensated the slave owners for freeing the slaves.  While this might have been repugnant to many, it would have cost less than the war in a monetary sense and would have been invaluable in terms of human life.  By staying silent on the subject, Lincoln allowed the situation to deteriorate to a point that many of the slave states had already seceded by the time he was sworn in.

None of this is to excuse the men who chose to secede.  They should have known enough about the law and the constitution to stay in and push for a better deal.  I am not excusing their use of slavery, but I am talking about the political reality of dealing with its demise.  By choosing rebellion they chose poorly and lost more than they were fighting for.


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