Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Shrewdly seizing power

The presidency is a traditional American square dance, involving a second partner (Congress), sometimes a third partner (the Supreme Court), and occasionally many others (state and federal officials).  They all perform in front of a huge audience (the general public).

Said to be gawky and inept, Lincoln stunned the audience, turning the square dance into a solo interpretive dance.  He glided across the floor, with freewheeling moves, for two-and-a-half months, until Congress joined him on the floor – at his request – on July 4, 1861.

Lincoln (Library of Congress)

A way to think about Lincoln

Historian Phillip Paludan writes:

Lincoln is a giant in almost every respect.  If ever a man deserved admiration, Lincoln does.  But he deserves it as a man.  And that man made mistakes, [and he] was devious and oppressive at times even while he was insightful and honest and struggled to preserve ‘liberty and union, one and inseparable.’ [i]

Early views

Historian David Herbert Donald writes that when Lincoln was a congressman in 1847, “He [Lincoln] claimed that the Constitution gave the war-making power to Congress, not to the Chief Executive.”  Lincoln reportedly said that the Founding Fathers called the war-making power  “the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions,” and they “resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”[ii]

Lincoln completely reversed his position when he became President.

Calling Congress into session

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher writes:

Coming as it did when Congress was not in session, the Fort Sumter episode gave Lincoln the opportunity to seize the initiative from the legislative branch—an initiative that he never relinquished.[iii]

On April 15, 1861, “the day after Fort Sumter surrendered, Lincoln issued a proclamation,” calling for 75,000 militiamen and summoning Congress into special session on July 4, 1861.

Fehrenbacher continues:

The very confusion of circumstances, the very uniqueness and urgency of the problems confronting him, amounted to a slate wiped clean, offering an extraordinary opportunity for the exercise of leadership. How did Lincoln respond? Decisively, beyond question.[iv]

Historian and Professor Eric Foner said in a lecture:

From Fort Sumter to July 4, 1861, when Lincoln calls Congress to meet in special session, for three months Lincoln runs the government all by himself.  There’s no Congress meeting, he doesn’t have to listen to the Judiciary, he appropriates money by himself, he raises troops by himself, he suspends the writ of habeas corpus by himself.

Key question

Foner asks:  “What authorized him [Lincoln] to do this?  He’s doing things which the Constitution says other branches of the government are supposed to do.”[v]

Envelope (Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s source of power

Legal historian James G. Randall notes:

The President’s sources of power must be found in the Constitution or in some act of Congress.  Yet the President has large discretionary power – a power which assumes great importance in times of emergency … latent powers which in time of war are capable of wide expansion. [vi]

Foner describes Lincoln’s idea of being a war-powers President:

War power justifies almost anything.  Lincoln understands that war power is this tremendous reservoir of presidential power, and he uses it, and he relies on it … If this is necessary for the war, then it’s unassailable.[vii]

A violation?

Foner states:

When Congress meets, he [Lincoln] says, ‘Well, I’ve done all this.  Have I violated the Constitution?’  He says, ‘No, I have not violated the Constitution.  I have gone beyond the Constitution …

With merit he [Lincoln] says the Constitution was not conceived for a situation like we face, and therefore, it [the Constitution] is irrelevant to the situation I faced when war began and Congress was not in session.  Of course, he [Lincoln] could have called Congress immediately, but he waited for it to meet on July 4, which was of course a very symbolic day.[viii]

Definitions of dictator

Foner said Lincoln wasn’t a dictator.  Undoubtedly, if one defines “dictator” by the examples of iron-fisted, murderous, 20th’Century leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, then Abraham Lincoln pales in comparison.  But in the context of the Constitution, jurisprudence, and the traditional balance of powers, surely Lincoln was, in William A. Dunning’s words, a “temporary dictator.” ”[ix]

Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Faustian bargain?

Lincoln later used his self-proclaimed war powers to emancipate millions of slaves behind Confederate lines, paving the way for abolishing slavery.  His action violated the very fabric of the Constitution as it pertains to the states, Congress, and the judiciary.  Nonetheless, emancipation was a noble, even a righteous deed.

Lincoln also used war powers as a basis for suspending habeas corpus.  Foner paraphrases Lincoln as asking, “Is it legitimate to violate habeas corpus in order that the entire edifice of the law survives?”

Foner states:

This is an impeccable argument, but it is also a loaded gun which passes down from generation to generation, which is seized upon by subsequent wartime Presidents, to justify egregious violations of civil liberties in wartime, such as happened in World War I, in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans, [and] has happened during the War on Terror.[x]

Somber warning

Andrew C. McLaughlin states in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Constitutional History of the United States:  “A president armed with the ‘war power’ may some day wreck the whole constitutional system … The dictator, if he ever appears, may discover precedents in the conduct of Lincoln.”[xi]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] Phillip Paludan, “Toward a Lincoln Conversation,” a review of Lincoln in Text and Context:  Collected Essays by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Reviews in American History, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March 1988), 38.

[ii] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York:  1995), 296.

[iii] Fehrenbacher, “Lincoln’s Wartime Leadership:  The First Hundred Days,” pgs. 2-18.

[iv] Fehrenbacher, pgs. 2-18.

[v] Lecture, “The Civil War and Reconstruction with Eric Foner: The Civil War, 1861-1865, Section 2, The First Year of the War:  Seeking a Union Strategy, CWR 2.2.4 Lincoln and Congress, Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, https://civilwartalk.com/threads/eric-foner-course-part-ii-the-civil-war-years-1861-1865.106685/page-2

[vi] James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York:  1926), 35-38.

[vii] Eric Foner interview, CWR 2.2, Lincoln a dictator? , Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, https://civilwartalk.com/threads/eric-foner-course-part-ii-the-civil-war-years-1861-1865.106685/page-2

[viii] Foner Lecture.

[ix] Foner lecture; Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, 226, quoting William A. Dunning, “Disloyalty in Two Wars,” American Historical Review, XXIV (October 1918), 625, 630.

[x] Foner lecture.

[xi] Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty, 230, quoting Andrew C. McLaughlin, Constitutional History of the United States (New York:  1936), 623.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Even geniuses can make mistakes

It is hard to deny Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen.  He understood his constituents, and he sagely analyzed his political opponents, including Republicans and Northern Democrats.

Lincoln combined his knowledge of human nature, Northern voters, and national issues to win the Republican nomination for president.  However, he didn’t anticipate that Southern states would secede.  This blog post will discuss Lincoln’s miscalculation and a possible link to the topic of Southern honor.

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

A contentious time

Historian David M. Potter states that Republicans saw recent history as “one long shameful record of concession after concession to the insatiable Slave-ocracy.  The annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all were designed to buy off the South.”[1]

Insights into Lincoln’s convictions

President-elect Lincoln told one of his Republican allies in December 1860:  “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery … The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.”[2]

A candid, prophetic statement

A year earlier, before Lincoln was a presidential candidate, he told a crowd in Leavenworth, Kansas:

If constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you [Southerners] undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.

His listeners remembered that federal troops stopped the insurrection.  Lincoln hastened to add his hope that “extreme measures” wouldn’t be necessary.[3]

Southerners crying “Wolf”

By the 1860 campaign season, according to Potter, “All parties at the South were agreed in either threatening to leave or reserving the right to leave a government administered by Republicans.”  Potter explains that Republicans “were able to ignore the whole thing.  The constantly reiterated threats of secession … had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to be audible to them.”

Senator Henry Wilson had expressed a typical Republican attitude:  “Sir, you cannot kick out of the Union the men who utter these impotent threats.”

Republican confidence

Potter continues:

The Republicans … still felt confident that the latent mass of the Southern people were devoted to the Federal government, and that any overt attempt at secession would arouse this large and heretofore inarticulate majority to violent opposition, thus destroying secession by local action.[4]

Cries for help

In contrast with Republican confidence, Unionist Southern Democrats fought for their political lives against Ultra-Secessionist Democrats (“Fire-eaters”).  The Unionists cried for President-Elect Lincoln to give tangible signs that he would protect slavery.  Lincoln kept public silence, but he wrote a few Unionists of his kindly intentions.

Private, revealing letters

Unionist Southern Democrat Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia exchanged letters with Lincoln, shedding light on Lincoln’s thinking shortly before, and shortly after, Southern states started to secede.

Alexander H. Stephens (Library of Congress)

After Lincoln’s election, Stephens told the Georgia Legislature on November 14, 1860:

My object is not to stir up strife, but to allay it; not to appeal to your passions, but to your reason … Before looking to extreme measures, let us first see, as Georgians, that everything which can be done to preserve our rights, our interests, and our honor, as well as the peace of the country in the Union, be first done … To make a point of resistance to the government, to withdraw from it because a man has been constitutionally elected, puts us in the wrong …

But it is said Mr. Lincoln’s policy and principles are against the Constitution, and that, if he carries them out, it will be destructive of our rights. Let us not anticipate a threatened evil.[5]

President-Elect Lincoln read Stephens’s speech.  On December 22, 1860, two days after South Carolina seceded, Lincoln wrote Stephens:

I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.  Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? … I wish to assure you … that there is no cause for such fears …

You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.  That, I suppose, is the rub.  It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.[6]

Stephens responded to Lincoln on December 30, 1860:

In my judgment, the people of the South do not entertain any fears that a Republican Administration, or at least the one about to be inaugurated, would attempt to interfere directly and immediately with slavery in the States. Their apprehension and disquietude do not spring from that source …

The leading object [of Republicans] seems to be simply, and wantonly, if you please, to put the institutions of nearly half the States under the ban of public opinion and national condemnation. This, upon general principles, is quite enough of itself to arouse a spirit not only of general indignation but of revolt.

Lincoln may not have properly reckoned with inflamed Southern honor.

An under-appreciated factor

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown explains:

In 1860-61, the lower South separated from the Union out of a sense of almost uncontrollable outrage.  To be sure, slavery was the root cause of sectional conflict … The threat to slavery’s legitimacy in the Union prompted the sectional crisis, but it was Southern honor that pulled the trigger …

At the heart of the conflict was Southern fear of free-state political and economic power and what that portended for the future of the peculiar institution.[7]

The complexity of honor and shame

Wyatt-Brown explains the connection between white liberty and Antebellum slavery:

Racism, white freedom and equality, and honor were not discrete concerns in the Southern mind.  They were all an inseparable part of personal and regional self-definition.  White supremacy, as Ulrich B. Phillips maintained long ago, was the ‘central theme’ of Southern culture.  Yet the language for expressing it was largely framed in terms of honor and shame.

To put it another way, white liberty was sustainable, it was thought, only on the basis of black slavery.  Black freedom, on the other hand, necessarily meant white disgrace because it placed the Southerner on a level with African Americans and Republicans.[8]

According to Stephens and many other leaders, Southerners perceived a long-term threat to the peculiar institution through the Republican Platform of 1856.

Piercing complaints

Historian Wyatt-Brown explains the impact of decades of abolitionist complaints:

Criticism of the South – its slave system, morals, and culture – had so vastly expanded that Southern whites increasingly felt deeply insulted to the point of disunion and war.  They reacted in the language they knew best – the rhetoric of honor – whose use provided the Southern cause with moral urgency and self-justification.[9]

Another motive for slavery in the territories

Wyatt-Brown suggests a connection between reputation and political battles:

Anti-slavery attacks stained the reputations by which Southern whites judged their place and power in the world.  Such, for instance, was the reason why slaveholders insisted on the right to carry their property into the free territories at will.  It was not solely a matter of expanding slavery’s boundaries, though that was of course important.

No less significant, however, was Southern whites’ resentment against any congressional measure that implied the moral inferiority of their region, labor system, or style of life.[10]

Historian Wyatt-Brown continues:

Just as personal insults could lead to duels, so could Northern assaults on Southern reputation for honesty and Christian bearing result in civil conflict.  John Brown’s raid and Lincoln’s election seemed a culmination of Northern contempt, hostility, and determination to destroy Southern wealth and power, all of which Republicans considered dependent upon that corrupting national canker, slavery.[11]

In retrospect, it seems that Lincoln didn’t anticipate secession, in part, because he misunderstood the importance of Southern-defined honor.

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[1] David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (Baton Rouge:  1995), 47.

[2] Lincoln to Lyman Trumbull, 12/10/1860, Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln vol. IV (New Brunswick, NJ:  1953-1955), 149-150.

[3] Abraham Lincoln speech, 12/3/1859, George W. Martin, Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1901-1902, Vol. VII (Topeka:  1902), 540-544.

[4] Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 6, 9, 16-17.

[5] Stephens to Georgia Legislature, 11/14/1860, in Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, 695-697.

[6] Abraham Lincoln to Alexander H, Stephens, L12/22/1860, found on Lincoln/Net, Northern Illinois University, University Libraries Online Digital Collections, http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-lincoln%3A36652

[7] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture:  Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s – 1880s (Chapel Hill:  2001), 177-178.

[8] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 199-200.

[9] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 178.

[10] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 198.

[11] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 78.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: The journey from Hard War to Soft Peace

“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ … for the times they are a-changin’.”  Bob Dylan could’ve sung these words about Abraham Lincoln and the nation after Fort Sumter.

Early on, Lincoln told Congress that he had been careful to not let the war “degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.”[i]

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln changes his mind

However, things changed after the slaughter at Shiloh.  Historian James McPherson states:

Willy-nilly, the war was becoming a remorseless revolutionary conflict, a total war rather than a limited one.[ii]

Pressure from Radical Republicans

Thaddeus Stevens, congressman from Pennsylvania, thundered, “We must treat this [war] as a radical revolution.”  Stevens called for the Union troops to “free every slave, slay every traitor – burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve [the nation].”[iii]

Thaddeus Stevens
(Library of Congress)

By the fourth year of the war, Lincoln believed in a hard war.  He reckoned that God had allowed “this mighty scourge of war” as the consequence of slavery.  Lincoln was prepared to see “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” (by slave overseers) be “paid by another [drop of blood] drawn with the sword.”[iv]

Critics cry out

When Northern armies carried out what Lincoln envisioned, his critics complained about outrages such as burning of civilian homes, forced evacuations of entire neighborhoods or districts, and alleged rape.  When victims and concerned Union Generals contacted Lincoln, Lincoln was often silent about the outrages or he sometimes praised the commanding generals for their military success.[v]

Few of Lincoln’s generals outshone Sherman, who wanted to “make Georgia howl.”  Sherman succeeded in hastening the end of the war.  He also left a legacy of multi-generational pain.[vi]  A United States military veteran in 2014 said that he couldn’t sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” knowing what Sherman’s troops had done 150 years earlier.

William T. Sherman
(Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s paradox

After Sherman captured Atlanta, Lincoln envisioned the end of the war.  In his Second Inaugural Address, this believer in a hard war called for a soft peace:

With malice toward none; with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[vii]

Lincoln’s last portrait
(Library of Congress)

Apparently, Lincoln saw healing as finishing the “work” of war.  Lincoln drew upon his King James Bible for a tone of mercy that evoked Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, both of whom taught that God wanted to make his enemies his friends.

The nation’s loss

After the surrender at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln.  When his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, heard the news, he reportedly said:

I am sorry.  We have lost our best friend in the court of the enemy.[viii]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any questions and comments below.

 

[i] Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message to Congress, 12/3/1861, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29502

[ii] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York:  1990), 32.

[iii] Thaddeus Stevens to Lancaster County Republican Convention, Lancaster, PA, 9/3/1862, Beverly Wilson Palmer, ed., The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Vol. I, January 1814-March 1865 (Pittsburgh:  1997), 322, 323.

[iv] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln, First and Second Inaugural Addresses (Washington, 1909), 40.

[v] William A. Blair, With Malice Toward Some:  Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill:  2014), 134-137, 145-146, 151.

[vi] William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, 10/9/1864, in The Civil War:  The Final Year Told by Those who Lived it (Library of America, New York:  2014), 362-364.

[vii] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 40.

[viii] Burke Davis, The Long Surrender:  The Dramatic Account of the Collapse of the Confederacy and the Pursuit of Jefferson Davis (New York:  1985).

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Persuader in Chief

Lincoln had the consummate skills of a lawyer, a politician, and a storyteller.  Added to those skills, he had impressive logic.

In many cases, Lincoln served himself, the Republican Party, and the country well.   But in some cases, Lincoln (and his subordinates) violated civil liberties.

One of Lincoln’s defeated Union Generals, Ambrose E. Burnside, inadvertently sparked a controversy, involving a vocal Peace Democrat.  Amid a public outcry, Lincoln defended his views on civil liberties in wartime.

Imprudent edict

Historian Frank L. Klement writes:

[Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio] regarded all criticism of the President as unpatriotic and traitorous … Since Burnside believed that Copperhead speeches and editorials gave encouragement to the enemy, he issued his well-known ‘General Orders, No. 38’ on April 13, 1863.

 

General Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress)

General orders No. 38 stated that “the habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy” would no longer be tolerated.  Burnside would discern between criticism and treason.  Civilians who disobeyed Burnside would be arrested and subjected to military procedure (that is, denied rights in the civil courts).[i]

Incendiary arrest

Almost immediately, Peace Democrat (and former congressman) Clement L. Vallandigham gave a speech, defying Burnside’s edict and suggesting that voters use “the ballot-box” to hurl “King Lincoln” from his throne.

Clement L. Vallandigham (Library of Congress)

Burnside arrested Vallandigham.  A military tribunal found Vallandigham guilty and put him in prison.

Democrats cried foul, and Lincoln ordered that Vallandigham be exiled to the Confederacy.  The level of outrage increased as Northern Democrats held mass protest meetings.

Corning Letter

A committee of Democrats of Albany, New York, chaired by Erastus Corning, wrote Lincoln on May 19, 1863.    They demanded that the Federal Government “maintain the supremacy of the civil over military law.”[ii]

Military arrests in the North were unconstitutional and eviscerated the Bill of Rights, according to the Albany Democrats.  They also claimed that Vallandigham was seized and tried “for no other reason than words addressed to a public meeting, in criticism of the course of the administration, and in condemnation of the military orders of the general [Burnside].”

Lincoln’s public reply

President Lincoln on June 12 wrote that he had lawfully suspended the writ of habeas corpus earlier in the war.  The Constitution allowed the suspension “when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln then commented on the former Ohio congressman:

Mr. Vallandigham avows his hostility to the war on the part of the Union; and his arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops, to encourage desertions from the army, and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it.

He [Vallandigham] was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the Administration, or the personal interests of the commanding general, but because he was damaging the army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends.

He [Vallandigham] was warring upon the military, and this gave the military constitutional jurisdiction to lay hands upon him.

Powerful, homespun argument

Lincoln asked:

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?

This is none the less injurious when affected by getting a father or brother or friend into a public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked administration or a contemptible government …

I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional but withal a great mercy.

Preventive arrests, assumption of guilt

Lincoln stated:

Arrests [in cases of rebellion] are made, not so much for what has been done as for what probably would be done …

The man who stands by and says nothing when the peril of his country is discussed cannot be misunderstood.  If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy; much more, if he talks ambiguously – talks for his country with ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’.

Lincoln explained the value of his policy by citing Confederate generals who hadn’t been arrested before they entered the Confederate service.  He stated, “I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”

Clarifying Lincoln’s words

The Albany Democrats on June 30, 1863, responded to Lincoln’s letter.

Your claim is, that when the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, you may lawfully imprison and punish for the crimes of silence, of speech, and opinion …

Your doctrine denies the freedom of speech and of the press.  It invades the sacred domain of opinion and discussion … even the refuge of silence is insecure.

They mentioned that the previous Congress (on March 3, 1863) had voted to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.[iii]  The Albany Democrats explained:

This [congressional] statute promptly removes the proceeding in every case into the courts where the safeguards of liberty are observed, and where the persons detained are to be discharged, unless indicted for criminal offense against the established and ascertained laws of the country.

Cross-examining Lincoln

The Albany Democrats pressed Lincoln for an explanation:

Upon what foundation, then, permit us to ask, do you rest the pretension that men who are not accused of a crime may be seized and imprisoned, or banished at the will and pleasure of the President or any of his subordinates in civil and military positions?

Where is the warrant for invading the freedom of speech and of the press?

Where is the justification for placing the citizen on trial without the presentment of a grand jury and before military commissions?

Lincoln never responded to these questions.  His words and actions suggest that for him, saving the Union (and preserving enlistments) “covered a multitude of sins.”

Historians weigh in

Historian Philip Paludan observes that President Lincoln made a more extreme defense of military arrests of civilians than necessary.[iv]

Historian Mark E. Neely Jr. writes:

If a situation were to arise again in the United States when the writ of habeas corpus were suspended, government would probably be as ill-prepared to define the legal situation as it was in 1861.

The clearest lesson is that there is no clear lesson in the Civil War—no neat precedents, no ground rules, no map.  War and its effect on civil liberties remain a frightening unknown.[v]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any questions or comments below.

[i] Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago: 1960), 89; Frank L. Klement, The Limits of Dissent:  Clement L. Vallandigham & the Civil War (New York:  1998), 149.

[ii] Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record, Vol. VII (New York:  1864), pp. 298-308.

[iii] Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York:  1991), 68.

[iv] Phillip S. Paludan, “Toward a Lincoln Conversation,” Reviews in American History, XVI (March 1988), 40-41.

[v] Neely, 235.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Softly disarming his opponents

I was a member of the Abraham Lincoln fan club as a boy.  Dad was a member, too.  He taped a Lincoln quote to his bedroom mirror: “My father taught me to work.  He did not teach me to love it.”

My elementary school class made a pilgrimage to Lincoln’s bronze bust in Springfield.  We stood in line to rub his now-shiny nose.  As I’ve reflected on Lincoln over the years, I’m still drawn to his ability to tell stories.

(Flickr.com)

A new series

In order to understand the Civil War and its causes, it’s good to look closely at Abraham Lincoln, his words, and his actions.  And so, I am starting a new blog series, Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln.

Responding with humor

When a political opponent accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln supposedly said, “If I had two faces, would I wear this one?”

Lincoln, who knew his King James Bible, used humor to fulfill the verse, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

An example

Lincoln received a lot of criticism for Secretary of War Simon Cameron.  When Lincoln dismissed Cameron, a group of visiting politicians said the president should go further and replace the whole cabinet.  Lincoln replied:

Gentlemen, when I was a young man, I knew one Joe Wilson who was very proud of his chickens, and he built a fine henhouse.  Skunks started raiding his hens, and he got annoyed.     One night, unusual cackling and fluttering woke him up.  It was a bright moonlit night.  Joe snuck outside with a shotgun.  He saw six skunks running in and out of the shed.  Enraged, he put a double charge in his gun to blast the whole tribe of skunks.  Somehow, he killed only one, and the rest ran off.

When Joe told this story, he paused here and held his nose.  The neighbors asked, ‘Why didn’t you run after them and kill the rest?’  ‘Blast it,’ Joe said.  ‘It was eleven weeks before I got over killin’ one.  If you want any more skirmishing in that line, you can just do it yourselves!’[i]

(cyberbreeze.com)

Starting young

Historian James M. McPherson explains Lincoln’s fondness for animal metaphors and parables.  McPherson states:

This derived in part from his own rural background [and] the many boyhood hours he spent with Aesop’s Fables.  During one of those long hours, his cousin Dennis Lincoln said to him, ‘Abe, them yarns is all lies.’  Lincoln looked up for a moment and replied, ‘Mighty darn good lies, Denny.’

McPherson continues:

As an adult, Lincoln knew that these ‘lies,’ these fables about animals, provided an excellent way to communicate with a people who were still close to their rural roots and understood the idioms of the forest and barnyard. [ii]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] Paraphrased from Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln:  The Story of a Picture (New York, 1866 ), 139.

[ii] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York:  1990), 99-100.

An upset in the making: A review of The Confederacy at Flood Tide

Football announcers, amazingly enough, parallel the work of historians:  They both offer play-by-play comments, descriptions of players, speculation, and post-game analysis.  Historian Philip Leigh has written a thoughtful book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide:  The Political and Military Ascension, June to December 1862.

Leigh describes “the Confederacy’s most opportune period for winning independence.”  He excels at setting things in context, ranging from battles in the Eastern and Western Theaters to geopolitical struggles in Europe.  The book ends on the crescendo of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Divided loyalties

The author offers a political insight about Robert E. Lee and the South in general:

Since he [Lee] famously, and reluctantly, resigned as a U.S. Army colonel during the secession crisis, Lee appreciated that the Confederacy was composed of people with divided loyalties and consciences.  Many would require victories in order to remain steadfast to the new cause.

View from the street

A few lively quotes pepper the text.  For example, a pro-Union woman was dismayed that Confederates had entered her Maryland neighborhood:

I asked myself in amazement, were these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity the men that had driven back again and again our splendid legions with their fine discipline, their martial show and color?

I felt humiliated at the thought that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance.  Oh!  They are so dirty.  I don’t think the Potomac River could wash them clean.

Financial fallout

Leigh shares interesting, little-known financial information about the broader war at sea.   For example, he states:

Raiders like the Alabama caused a surge in insurance rates for cargoes carried in American hulls.  Consequently, many Northern ship owners sold their vessels at depressed prices to foreign buyers who could sail their ships without fear of Confederate capture.

Half the U.S. merchant fleet vanished during the Civil War.  Rebel raiders destroyed about 100,000 tons, but 800,000 tons were sold to neutral registrants.  Although previously the envy of the maritime world, the U.S. merchant marine was permanently eclipsed thereafter.

What if … ?

Counter-factual scenarios are some of the most intriguing questions in history.  Leigh considers what might have happened if war had broken out between Britain and the United States:

Although it would be hard for Britain to maintain an army in America, its powerful navy might have ended the federal blockade of Southern ports and even blockaded Northern harbors.

Contrary to popular belief, the Monitor and Merrimack were not the first ironclad warships.  The British and French began building bigger and faster deep-water ironclads before America’s Civil War started.

The Road to emancipation

The author deftly traces Lincoln’s journey as he formed his thoughts about abolition and emancipation.  Leigh also clearly explains Lincoln’s strategy of using the Emancipation Proclamation to hasten the end of the war.

My recommendation

This book is a good contribution to the discussion of the Civil War, Lincoln, emancipation, and the Confederacy’s seemingly best chance to obtain independence.  I recommend this logical, clear, and thought-provoking book.

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Trained for war, but pursuing peace: Charles Mason, Jurist

If war is a continuation of politics by other means, as von Clausewitz suggests, Iowa Democrat Charles Mason saw both sides of the coin.[i]

Edging out Lee

Civil War buffs remember Cadet Charles Mason as besting Robert E. Lee in West Point’s Class of 1829.  Neither man had any demerits, but Mason earned slightly more points than Lee.

After West Point, Mason became a lawyer and then chief justice of the Iowa Territorial Court.  In 1839, he wrote the decision, “In the Matter of Ralph.”

Charles Mason (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Ground-breaking Iowa court decision

In this case, in 1834, Missouri slave-owner Mr. Montgomery gave his slave, Ralph, permission to buy his freedom for $550 by working in the Dubuque lead mines.  A few years later, Ralph hadn’t paid off his debt, so slave hunters arrested him.

A judge issued a writ of habeas corpus for Ralph.  The judge in 1839 persuaded the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court to hear Ralph’s case.

Ralph’s attorney argued that Ralph should be free, drawing upon American law, British law, Natural Law, and the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:15).

Chief Justice Charles Mason responded that slavery was illegal in Iowa based on the Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise (passed in 1820).

Mason explained that Ralph was free because “property, in the slave, cannot exist without the existence of slavery.”[ii]  Therefore, Ralph.’s former owner, Montgomery, illegally deprived “a human being of his liberty.”

Mason concluded:

It is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.[iii]

Prophetic insight

Mason commented that this case involved “an important question which may ere long, if unsettled, become an exciting one.”  Over the next 22 years, tensions continued to rise over the expansion of slavery into the territories.

Charles Mason (Library of Congress)

Intervening years after Ralph

Mason became U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C., from 1853-1857.  He then returned to Burlington, Iowa, and served on the State Board of Education.[iv]

During this time, Mason’s beloved Iowa Democratic Party split into two embittered factions.  Republicans rose in strength, and Democrats became weaker and weaker.

Game-changer

When Confederate troops fired upon Fort Sumter in April 1861, Iowa Republicans flocked to enlist in the Union Army and Navy.  Many Democrats enlisted, too, men who supported using the sword to restore the Union.

Not long after Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln began suspending habeas corpus in the North.  This meant that federal authorities could arrest and imprison civilians, without any charges.  The civilians wouldn’t get a trial, and their civil liberties would be violated.

Many Democratic editors in Iowa complained about this, stating that only Congress could suspend habeas corpus.  Lincoln said he had authority to do it.  After all, he was commander-in-chief.

The former jurist analyzes secession

In summer 1861, there was an Iowa governor’s race, and Mason was the Democratic candidate.  As a conservative Democrat, Mason said the Union must be preserved, but he thought the war, at that time, was unwise and possibly illegal.

To examine Mason’s statement, it is helpful to remember President Lincoln’s first inaugural address.  Lincoln had said, “In contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union is perpetual.”[v]  According to this view, the Confederacy was made up of insurgents who lived in states that remained loyal to the Union.  Mason disagreed with this legal fiction.

Mason suggested that secession may represent “the uprising of a whole people against what they deem injustice and oppression.”  He also suggested it may be “the voice of one-third of the Sovereign parties to our present Constitution claiming the rights of securing the happiness of their citizens by changing the form of their Government in accordance, as they contend,” with the Declaration of Independence.

Mason agreed with Republicans that the Union must be restored.  But, he said, the federal government must first exhaust every possible means of compromise and conciliation.  Otherwise, the federal government was engaged in “naked, arbitrary, down-right coercion.”

Mason then predicted that “a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military Despotism.”[vi]

Republican newspapers and politicians called Mason a dis-unionist.  He felt great pressure and dropped out of the race.  A Republican became governor.

War-time activities

Mason advocated for peace, writing letters to editors and advising like-minded Democrats.  Late in the war, Mason returned to Washington, D.C., to practice patent law.[vii]

Prominent Iowa Democrats seemingly trusted Mason’s political insights.  A few of them who had Confederate sons asked Mason to intervene with federal authorities when those sons were captured by Union troops.

During the war, Mason read about his fellow West Point Cadet, Robert E. Lee.  Mason wrote in his diary:

General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain. Some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army as he did.

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

Final thoughts

Iowa Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads, were soundly defeated during the war.  Sometime after Appomattox, Mason wrote in his diary, “I played the game of life at a great crisis and lost. I must be satisfied.”[viii]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ:  1984), 87.

[ii] Eastin Morris, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Iowa, Vol. I (Iowa City:  1847), 1-7.

[iii] Henry K. Peterson, “The First Decision Rendered by the Supreme Court of Iowa,” The Annals of Iowa 34 (1958), 304-307.

[iv] Richard Acton, “Charles Mason,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=253

[v] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” in editor Andrew Delbanco, The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: 1992), 197.

[vi] “Judge Mason, acceptance of the nomination for governor of Iowa,” Dubuque Daily Herald, 8/11/1861.

[vii] Richard Acton, “Charles Mason,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=253

[viii] Charles Mason, Charles Mason Remey, The Life and Letters of Charles Mason:  Chief Justice of Iowa, 1804-1882 (Washington, D.C.:  1939).

Happy 4th of July

During the Civil War, both sides looked to our Patriot Forefathers — their sacrifice and devotion — for inspiration.  Happy 4th of July.

It’s nice to know where you came from: A review of A History of Iowa

Imagine a scene from the dawn of time:  A warrior on a canoe, spear held loosely, glides up a river toward an unsuspecting mastodon.  The spear flies, and the mastodon falls.  Centuries later, its massive skeleton is in the State Historical Museum in Des Moines.

Professor Leland L. Sage takes us back to early days of what became Iowa.  His book, A History of Iowa, begins with the impact of the glaciers through the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Sage excels at describing the growth of Iowa’s government and explaining political movements in Iowa, from territorial days through the farm mortgage-default crisis in the 1920s and 1930s.  He also discusses agriculture.

Sage claims that when he wrote this book, “No scholarly general history of the state existed.”

He writes with authority and insight.  The text is lucid, and he wastes no words.  Sage writes with endearing skepticism.  Two examples will suffice.

  1. According to Sage, it “requires an exercise of great faith” to accept that the name “Iowa” came from the favorite residence of the Ioway Indians. He then offers good reasoning for this skepticism.
  2. After discussing Lincoln’s death, Sage writes, “The Lincoln no one knew would soon take form.”

A small bone to pick

I found a small weakness in Sage’s book, namely, his brief mention of the arrest of Democratic editor Dennis A. Mahony in fall 1862.  Sage writes:

“By remarkable coincidence, U.S. Marshal Hubert Hoxie of Des Moines appeared in Dubuque only six days before the Democratic District Convention, arrested Mahony, and hustled him off to Washington, without benefit of a trial but accused of interfering with the war effort” (pg. 163)

It’s possible that Sage was being ironic, referring to the “remarkable coincidence” of Mahony’s arrest.  However, the author doesn’t examine why Mahony was arrested.  Furthermore, Sage doesn’t discuss the propriety and the implications of violations of civil liberties in Iowa during wartime.  Perhaps the author lacked information.  After all, his book came out six years earlier than Hubert H. Wubben’s Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement.

In contrast to Sage’s treatment of Mahony’s arrest, he gives an ample discussion of violations of civil liberties of German-Americans in Iowa during World War I.

My suggestion

I recommend this book and its meaty end-notes.

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“Against my consent”: Confessions of a discouraged Irish-American

Finding a job was a common worry in Iowa as the Financial Panic of 1857 lingered.   Many Iowans headed to the South where jobs were a-plenty.

For example, engineer William O’Day left Iowa and got a railroad job in Mississippi.  After the firing upon Fort Sumter, some Iowans in the South joined military units to keep earning a living.

(Source: mymodelrailroad.net)

A month-and-a-half after the war began, Irish native O’Day enlisted in Company B, 17th Mississippi Infantry.  His unit was near Richmond, Virginia, in summer 1862.  After being hospitalized for illness, he rejoined his unit and was captured on November 6, 1862, in Hampshire, Virginia.

(Click to enlarge.)

O’Day gave the following statement to Union authorities:

I was born in Ireland.  I am 26 years old.  I enlisted with Captain John McGirk of the 17th Mississippi Infantry Co. B and remained with him for the period of 17 months.

My reason for enlisting was because I was out of employment.  I belong to Iowa and my Father lives near West Union, Brama [Bremer] County, Iowa.  I had to leave home to obtain a living.

I served 17 months in the Confederate Army against my consent.  When I left them, they were stationed between Winchester and Front Royal.  Colonel Holder now commands the 17th Mississippi Infantry, numbering about 700.

Union officials moved O’Day to three different prisons:  Atheneum (in Wheeling, Virginia, present-day West Virginia); Camp Chase, Ohio; and Cairo, Illinois.

He was slated to be exchanged – and returned to his Confederate unit – but it never happened.  O’Day presumably convinced Union officials to let him take the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government.  His Confederate company roll call listed him as a deserter.

After his release from prison, the trail runs cold.  Some fifty years later, on August 11, 1910, William O’Day died and was buried in Bremer County.

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