The American Gulag

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Whenever a neocon defends governmental acts of tyranny, despotism, and brutality (a defining characteristic of a neocon) it’s a sure bet that he will eventually "justify" such acts by invoking the image of the "sainted" Abraham Lincoln. If "Father Abraham" did it, the argument goes, then it must not only be accepted but celebrated.

Neo-columnist Michelle Malkin makes just this argument in her recent defense of FDR’s rounding up of over 100,000 ethnic Japanese Americans during World War II and sending them to what FDR himself called "concentration camps." (In her book, In Defense of Internment, Malkin euphemistically calls the camps "relocation centers"). In an August 9, 2004 interview on Townhall.com Malkin predictably played the Abe card: "Historically, civil rights have often yielded to security in times of crisis. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which enabled him to detain thousands of rebels and subversives without access to judges."

This statement is half truth and half lie. Lincoln certainly did unconstitutionally suspend habeas corpus. But the tens of thousands of Northern citizens who were imprisoned without due process by the Lincoln administration (as many as 38,000 by one estimate in the Columbia Law Journal) were overwhelmingly plain citizens from all walks of life who simply expressed doubt over the administration’s unconstitutional and despotic policies, including the shutting down of more than 300 opposition newspapers and the mass arrest of political dissenters by the military. Tens of thousands of Northern political prisoners spent months in a series of gulags, such as Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, which came to be known as "the American Bastille."

The Lincoln administration cast a very wide net indeed in rounding up any and all political opponents in the Northern states. Anyone overheard questioning virtually anything the administration had done, let alone publishing critical articles or editorials in newspapers, could land in prison without any due process. In fact, Lincoln himself even argued that those who simply remained silent and did not actively support his administration should also be subject to imprisonment. In his own words:

The man who stands by and says nothing when the peril of his Government 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." (Collected Works of Lincoln, vol. 6, pp. 264—265.)

Thus, in Lincoln’s opinion anyone who did not openly and publicly support his administration and its policies was a traitor, susceptible to being prosecuted as such, and hanged if found guilty. What could possibly be more tyrannical than punishing silence as a crime with a death sentence? Could Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or Alexander Hamilton have ever even entertained such thoughts? Madison (the "father of the Constitution") was president during the War of 1812, which coincided with a very serious New England secession movement led by Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering. It culminated with the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814, yet Madison never implemented any such repression, nor is there evidence that he even considered it. Lincoln, on the other hand, adopted such repressive policies almost from his very first day in office.

The opposition press was mostly shut down by the Lincoln administration and many editors and owners imprisoned (see James Randall, Constitutional Problems under Lincoln). The remaining press was affiliated with the Republican Party, much like today’s media, and it served as a spy network for Lincoln’s secret police force, headed up by William Seward. As Dean Sprague writes in Freedom Under Lincoln (p. 178): "When an editor of a newspaper wished to attack a Peace man [i.e., a critic of the Lincoln administration] he would suggest him as a candidate for Fort Lafayette. When a Union man heard a Peace speech, he knew it was not necessary to interfere. He would simply pass by with the remark that the speaker had better watch out or he would end up in Fort Lafayette." That, presumably, would intimidate the peace advocate sufficiently to shut him up for good.

Free speech was illegal for the duration of the Lincoln administration. That’s how modern historians and propagandists get away with lying to the public about the alleged "unity" of Northern opinion during the war. Of course there was relative "unity"; dissenting opinions were violently censored and the purveyors of those opinions imprisoned.

One of those imprisoned for fourteen months for simply questioning the unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus was Francis Key Howard, the grandson of Francis Scott Key and editor of the Baltimore Exchange newspaper. In response to an editorial in his newspaper that was critical of the fact that the Lincoln administration had imprisoned without due process the mayor of Baltimore, Congressman Henry May, and some twenty members of the Maryland legislature, he was imprisoned near the very spot where his grandfather composed the Star Spangled Banner. After his release, he noted the deep irony of his grandfather’s beloved flag flying over "the victims of as vulgar and brutal a despotism as modern times have witnessed" (John Marshall, American Bastile, pp. 645—646).

Dean Sprague devoted a chapter of his book, Freedom Under Lincoln (which should have been called Oppression Under Lincoln) to Fort Lafayette, where thousands of political prisoners were held. He writes that he prisoners were "herded onto the island" in New York Harbor where they were given iron beds with "mattresses" of straw or moss to sleep in and "food" that consisted of such things as "some discolored beverage" that smelled a little like coffee to go along with "fat pork, sometimes raw and sometimes half cooked" (p. 282). "On some days a glass of water would contain a dozen tadpoles from one-quarter to one-half inch long without counting the smaller fish" (p. 282).

The political prisoners in Fort Lafayette ranged from mayors, state legislators, ex-governors, business owners and newspaper editors, to "common traders and impoverished farmers." These men were naturally bitter about their circumstances and were outspoken about it. Consequently, writes Sprague, "Fort Lafayette was the only place in the country where a man could speak freely" (p. 283).

After his release, Francis Key Howard wrote a book about his experiences entitled Fourteen Months in American Bastilles in which he described daily life as "a constant agony, the jailers as modified monsters and the government as an unfeeling persecutor which took delight in abusing its political prisoners" (Sprague, p. 284). In his defense and whitewashing of Lincoln’s civil liberties abuses even Lincoln apologist Mark Neely, Jr., author of The Fate of Liberty, noted that in Fort Lafayette and in other dungeons where political prisoners where held, "Handcuffs and hanging by the wrists were rare [but not nonexistent], but in the summer of 1863 the army had developed a water torture that came to be used routinely" (p. 110). This sounds remarkably similar to the current Republican Party regime’s administration of the Abu Graib prison in Iraq.

As word of Lincoln’s gulag in New York harbor spread, the prison "cast its shadow over the entire North," writes Sprague (p. 287). "It became a kind of American Bastille, its name on everyone’s lips. As such, it was a weapon in the hands of the Lincoln administration, a weapon that was used to dominate the North, and to establish the fact that the federal government was the greatest power in the nation" (emphasis added).

Lincoln’s gulag policy, along with his shutting down of the opposition press and the deportation of Democratic critic Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, effectively destroyed the system of states’ rights in the North, which had been just as vital to that region in fending off unconstitutional federal usurpations of power as it was to the South prior to the war. But rather than describing Lincoln as a brutal dictator, as he should have, Sprague instead praised him as a "man of iron" who was willing to see hundreds of thousands of young men die for the sake of the Union [but not his own son, who spent the war years at Harvard] and not above sending a few hundred to prison for opposing the war. Repeatedly, whenever Congress asked for information on the arrests, he replied that it was not in the public interest to furnish the information (p. 302).

Sprague understates the number of prisoners here by as much as 38,000, and makes no mention of the fact that only a dictator would thumb his nose in this way at members of Congress who inquire about the whereabouts of their constituents who had been seen being dragged from their homes by federal soldiers.

Thanks to these policies of repression, and the destruction of states’ rights and the separation of powers as checks of the tyrannical proclivities of the federal government, "the image of an alert, all-knowing government had been created," Sprague approvingly writes. "Father Abraham had been born to the American people" (p. 179).

The imperious FDR, hero to Michelle Malkin and all other neocons, obviously knew of Lincoln’s gulag and used it as an excuse for the oppression of Japanese Americans and others during his own regime. His own attorney general, Francis Biddle, once remarked that the Constitution "has not greatly bothered any wartime president." This of course is untrue with regard to Lincoln’s predecessors, none of whom would ever have dreamed of declaring themselves to be uncompromising dictators no matter what dangers the nation faced.

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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