Reacting to my post yesterday about Lincoln suspending habeas corpus and trying to arrest Chief Justice Roger Taney, Timothy Sandefur writes:
Still, I can’t help but wonder why there’s always so much talk about Lincoln’s or the Union’s violations of civil rights during wartime. (Often examples are given which were not done on Lincoln’s orders or even with his permission, but by generals in the field, whose orders were sometimes overruled by Lincoln.) You rarely see an article talking about how the Confederacy violated people’s rights to dissent and so forth. Why is that? Now, perhaps it could be because everyone stipulates that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of the war. If I could be confident of that answer, I would not feel compelled to write further…
But the fact that self-proclaimed “libertarian” writers on this subject insist on emphasizing only the wrongs committed by the Union, and ignore entirely the wrongs committed by the Confederacy–all the while denying that the war was about slavery in the first place–tends, I think, to shift the image in readers’ minds. How often do these Doughface Libertarians repeat the charge that Lincoln instituted a military draft? And how often do they even acknowledge that the Confederacy also drafted its citizens? Readers constantly exposed to this curious bias come, I fear, to imagine that the North was some ravenous machine devouring the lives and liberties of the innocent southerners just wanting their independence. An image closer to the truth would be a Confederacy that was very nearly a police state, basing its political dreams on nauseating theories of racial supremacy and the perpetual enslavement of millions of innocent human beings–demanding their right to enslave others without interference–and finally being brought down by a Union which was itself weakened by racism and other internal fissures.
Let us please have at least some balance. There was a right side in the war–and it was emphatically not the South!
To which I can only say, despite the fact that he appears to be replying to what I wrote, I agree entirely. It was certainly not my intent, in writing about Lincoln’s constitutional problems, to in any way absolve the Confederacy of their crimes. And he’s absolutely right that there are far too many people who fancy themselves libertarians who make precisely the argument he is replying to, an argument I emphatically reject.
I wrote what I wrote for two reasons. First, because I think it is very important to view the great men in our past as real people, not as plaster saints. American history tends to be hagiographic in nature, building images of men like Washington and Lincoln as two dimensional “men in white hats”, sent by God himself to vanquish the forces of evil. The truth is both more complex and far more interesting, I think. Lincoln was not a two-dimensional saint, he was a man, whose greatest strength was not his purity of heart but his brilliance and his steely-eyed sense of reason. As a politician, Lincoln was ruthless and calculating, temperamental and strong-willed. Gore Vidal quotes a fascinating passage from Lincoln in which he talks about the inevitability of the actions of great men, men compelled to make their mark in history, a quote which Vidal characterizes as “Lincoln warning us about Lincoln.”
Second, I was following up on an earlier post about the fragility of constitutional protections in times of war. At a time when we hear often that war protestors are traitors (both today and in the Vietnam era), when the FBI engages in heightended surveillance of those who are merely engaged in voicing views of the war the government does not approve of, and when the present administration has asserted its authority to imprison American citizens without habeas corpus protection, it can not be said often enough or loud enough that our constitution only serves to protect us if we demand that it does so and settle for nothing less. And given that an astonishing percentage of Americans can’t date the civil war within 50 years of its occurence, I seriously doubt that more than a small percentage of my fellow citizens even KNOW about the suspension of habeas corpus under Lincoln (or what habeas corpus means, for that matter).
Sandefur is correct to react to the cartoon versions of history that portray the North as devils and the South as angels, but it’s also important to react to the cartoon histories on the other side (as I have no doubt he agrees) that paint the North, and Lincoln in particular, as a sinless savior. Let’s have the reality, by all means, on both sides. Let’s see history, and the men who shape it, with all the complexities and contradicions that they inevitably contain.
Postscript: I want to thank Mr. Sandefur for bringing to my attention the larger context of the issue that I was largely oblivious to. After going back and reading some of DiLorenzo’s other articles (I had never heard of him before seeing a link to his article on another site), I realize why Sandefur reacted the way he did – DiLorenzo is something of a nutball. When Sandefur referred to “doughfaced libertarians”, he was referring to a group that I was aware of, but didn’t know DiLorenzo was a part of, a group led by Joseph Sobran and a few others. They are self-styled libertarians and “southern patriots” who write the kind of extremist crap that fuels the militia movement. Had I know that DiLorenzo was as fanatically anti-Lincoln (he is also fanatically anti-Straussian, by the way, referring to the “Lincoln-worshipping Straussian neocon cabal”) and as pro-confederacy as he is, I would never have cited him without, at the very least, making it clear that my argument was not intended to support his more general views in any way whatsoever. After reading several of DiLorenzo’s other articles, I can only think, “No wonder Sandefur reacted the way he did!” If I’d done a little research before posting what I did, I could at least have avoided the now-obvious association with a group whose views I emphatically reject.