Bush's Lincolnian Assault on Civil Liberties (Or, Al Gore is Right!)

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The neocon Lincoln idolaters in the Republican Party and its various appendages have done such a good job of getting President Bush to ape the rhetoric and practices of their hero, Dishonest Abe, that they have done what, up until now, I thought was the unthinkable: They have made Al Gore look like a wise, old statesman. Following an age-old American tradition, former Vice President Gore sounds much more sensible out of office than he did when he was in. In a recent speech at the Georgetown University Law Center ("Democracy Itself is in Grave Danger," June 24, 2004), Vice President Gore sounded almost Ron Paul-like!

Gore’s criticisms of the Bush administration are striking in that they reveal that when it comes to waging war and dealing with civil liberties issues, the party has not changed at all since it first became The Republican Party of Lincoln. For example, he posed the rhetorical question of what George Washington would think of the fact that "our current president claims the unilateral right to arrest and imprison American citizens indefinitely without giving them the right to see a lawyer or inform their families of their whereabouts, and without the necessity of even charging them with any crime"?

These were exactly the policies of the Lincoln administration. Habeas corpus was unilaterally (and illegally) suspended by Lincoln and the military, with the help of a secret police bureaucracy operated by William Seward, imprisoned tens of thousands of Northern political opponents. They were thrown into gulags such as Fort Lafayette in New York harbor where they were never charged, had no idea how long they would be held, and their families often had no idea of their whereabouts. (See James Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln; and Dean Sprague, Freedom Under Lincoln). The Virginia patriot George Washington would have undoubtedly drawn his sword and fought another revolution over such an outrage.

What would Washington think, asked Gore, of our president’s contention that he can "label any citizen an u2018unlawful enemy combatant’ and that will be sufficient to justify taking away that citizen’s liberty — even for the rest of his life, if the president chooses. And there is no appeal"? Again, the hyper-paranoid Lincoln administration, which saw enemies everywhere, labeled virtually anyone who disagreed with its policies as spies and traitors who were therefore subject to military arrest and indefinite imprisonment without due process.

"What would Thomas Jefferson think," said Gore, "of the curious and discredited argument from our Justice Department that the president may authorize what plainly amounts to the torture of prisoners. . .?" Not much, I suppose. The Lincoln administration also tortured Northern prisoners, as documented by Mark Neely, Jr. in his book, The Fate of Liberty. In a chapter entitled "The Dark Side of the Civil War" Neely includes a lengthy section entitled "Torture" to describe some of the techniques used by the Lincoln administration. He describes "the rise of torture as a means of extracting confessions" not of Southerners but of "Northerners suspected of deserting from the United States Army" into which many of them had been conscripted (p. 109). "Handcuffs and hanging by the wrists were rare," writes Neely, but "in the summer of 1863, the army had developed a water torture that came to be used routinely." When this practice became public knowledge, "there was no impulse to correct the abuse; indeed, no one [in the administration] saw it as an abuse. It had become a usual and customary way of handling certain kinds of prisoners."

What would Benjamin Franklin think, Vice President Gore rhetorically asked, "of President Bush’s assertion that he has the inherent power — even without a declaration of war by the Congress — to launch an invasion of any nation on Earth, at any time he chooses, for any reason he wishes . . ."? This, too, is "Lincolnesque," a word that the Claremontistas are especially fond of using in their descriptions of President Bush. Lincoln launched a military invasion and a naval blockade of the South without the consent of Congress.

"How long would it take James Madison to dispose of our current president’s recent claim, in Department of Justice legal opinions, that he is no longer subject to the rule of law so long as he is acting in his role as Commander in Chief?" asked Gore. This of course was Lincoln’s very claim for why he was entitled to become a dictator. He discovered "war powers" in the Constitution that even James Madison, the "father of the Constitution," never noticed when he was president and at war with England during the War of 1812.

Under this novel theory Lincoln essentially declared himself dictator and proceeded to launch a war without the consent of Congress, suspend habeas corpus, shut down over 300 opposition newspapers, imprison tens of thousands of Northern political opponents, including numerous newspaper editors and owners, deport an outspoken Democratic congressman, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, censor the telegraph, confiscate private property, confiscate firearms in the border states, imprison duly elected members of the Maryland legislature, the mayor of Baltimore, and Congressman Henry May of Baltimore, instruct soldiers to rig Northern elections, and generally ignore all constitutional restrictions on executive powers. He was the ideal neocon president, in other words.

As Vice President Gore explained, "President Bush has been attempting to conflate his commander-in-chief role and his head of government role to maximize . . . power . . ." Exactly. This is what makes him so "Lincolnesque," much to the delight of the neocon establishment, no doubt. Father Abraham lives!

President Bush has "declared that our nation is now in a permanent state of war," Gore pointed out, "which he says justifies his reinterpretation of the Constitution in ways that increase his personal power at the expense of Congress, the courts, and every individual citizen."

Father Abraham lives, indeed. Lincoln intimidated the entire Congress by deporting Vallandigham for merely protesting his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus, thereby severely damaging, if not destroying, the constitutional separation of powers. When Chief Justice of the United States Roger B. Taney issued the opinion that only Congress could constitutionally suspend habeas corpus, Lincoln issued an arrest warrant for Taney. He clearly had no respect for the judiciary or Congress if they disagreed with him. So disrespectful of the Supreme Court was Lincoln that he never even answered Taney’s opinion in court, as he could have — the opinion was a circuit court opinion (Supreme Court justices also had circuit court duties in that era).

And of course Northern civilians were intimidated by the censorship of the press, the intimidation by soldiers and Republican Party mobs at voting booths, and by the violent response to the New York City draft riots, where Lincoln sent some 15,000 soldiers from the recently-concluded Battle of Gettysburg, who fired into the mostly unarmed crowd, killing hundreds (see Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots).

The president’s lawyers, Gore further noted, have "concluded that the president, whenever he is acting in his role as commander in chief, is above and immune from the rule of law." This of course was also the opinion of Lincoln and his lawyers, an opinion that Vice President Gore correctly characterizes as "this bizarre and un-American theory." As for Lincoln, Dean Sprague succinctly described how "the entire judicial system was set aside" by Lincoln in his book, Freedom Under Lincoln (p. 291):

The laws were silent, indictments were not found, testimony was not taken, judges did not sit, juries were not impaneled, convictions were not obtained and sentences were not pronounced. The Anglo-Saxon concept of due process, perhaps the greatest political triumph of the ages and the best guardian of freedom, was abandoned.

This refers to the imprisonment without due process of Northern civilians, not combatants, and was truly as un-American as anything any American politician has ever done. In addition, the Lincoln administration passed an indemnity law that indemnified all executive branch personnel from criminal prosecution for their violations of the constitutional liberties of the people. Lincoln and his entire administration believed themselves to be above the law.

All of this is why the Claremontistas and other neocons are such Lincoln idolaters. They call him a "model statesman" because they favor an executive dictatorship, as opposed to the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind They favor a dictatorial president who will pursue their nationalistic political objectives for them. "National Greatness conservatives" need a dictator to run roughshod over the Constitution — and the public — if they are to achieve their goal of greater glory for The Fatherland. So far, they have been extremely successful in molding the Bush administration in just this way, as Vice President Gore correctly pointed out in his Georgetown speech.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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