Not only did that war transform the ways in which Americans feel toward human bondage and states’ rights, but it gave us many of the things we have today, several of which we simply do not realize. Advancements in medical care, weapons systems and telegraph communications are among the obvious material gains that came as a result of the bloodiest conflict in American history, fought from 1861-1865, but among the oftentimes less-obvious political and social ramifications are centralization of federal power, expansion of the executive branch of government and the deepening of racial rifts that had an impact on American society for longer than a century.
Now, I am an unabashed Lincoln fan. I consider him my historical hero for his stances on human dignity and self-worth; his undying yearning to strive for equality; his belief that the U.S. Constitution, above all else, defined his duty to preserve the American Union; and his complicated ambiguity that leaves us with both “the kind of awkward, amiable, storytelling, rail-splitting, frontier folk hero” and “the towering political genius, the moral leader, the shaper of a nation’s destiny, savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator,” in the words of Civil War historian Dr. David W. Blight.
Lincoln, however, was wrong on a few things during his presidency, and at first glance one of these topics was his complacency with preventing “the publication of pro-secession sentiments”; banning “pro-peace newspapers from the U.S. mails”; confiscating “printing materials”; ceasing “the use of the postal service and other exchange routes in and out of the rebellious states”; militarily controlling “Washington’s telegraph wires, the standard medium for transmitting news from city to city”; and intimidating and imprisoning “reporters, editors and publishers who sympathized with the South or objected to an armed struggle to restore the Union,” as Holzer wrote in an excerpt from his new book which appeared in the December 2014 Civil War Times. According to Holzer, “the president, his Cabinet and many Northern newspaper editors believed” that publication of anti-Union sentiments “was morphing from tolerable dissent into nation-threatening treason.”
However, despite these harsh claims that could potentially damn Lincoln in the eyes of many hindsight-seeking Americans, it must be recognized that Lincoln’s was a situation faced by no other American president, before or since.
“The emergency he faced was unprecedented,” wrote Mackubin T. Owens, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. Lincoln was the chief executive at the only instance of armed civil war in our nation’s history, allowing him to exercise powers allotted by the Constitution, as well as those on which “the Constitution is silent.” According to a 2007 article by Owens, “it is possible to argue that everything Lincoln did was justifiable under the powers stipulated by Article 2 of the Constitution,” which lays out the president’s legal obligations and restrictions, including his duty to perform as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.”
During the Civil War, there was “tangible and unmistakable evidence” of many media outlets’ “substantial and unmistakable complicity with those in armed rebellion,” according to Lincoln himself, which he believed was conclusive evidence worthy of decisive executive action. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “in times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the executive solely…to give direction to their affairs, with a confidence as auspicious as it is well-founded.”
A copy of the United States Constitution, printed on Jan. 12, 1867, featuring watermark images of five Union generals, including William T. Sherman, George G. Meade, Ulysses S. Grant, George H. Thomas and Philip H. Sheridan. The symbolism of these men as "defenders of the Constitution" is obviously at play. (LOC)
Lincoln was a strict constitutionalist who recognized that his powers were limited in times of peace, but at a time during which Americans found themselves in armed conflict against one another—in which thousands of men were being maimed daily, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of everyday Americans were being somehow affected—he abided by a principle which suggested “that a nation must be able to protect itself in wartime against expression that causes insubordination or actually obstructs the raising of armies,” according to the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Newseum. This sentiment is reflected in a poignant scene in the 2012 Steven Spielberg-directed motion picture Lincoln, during which the sixteenth president—eloquently portrayed by the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis—is discussing (a) the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, and (b) the importance of enshrining the promise of keeping formerly enslaved persons “then, thenceforward and forever free” (The emancipation issue had its own constitutional questions, which may be described in an entirely different discussion. Perhaps a future blog on that issue will be necessary).
“I…am devotedly for [civil liberties] after civil war, and before civil war, and at all times, ‘except when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require’ their suspension,” said Lincoln. And it has been proven that in some cases, the publication of inflammatory statements by Southern-leaning, anti-Union media led to “occasional flurries of intolerant mob rage”; because these newspapers “were so far within the test of direct and dangerous interference with the war,” those dripping with secessionism “were actually causing desertions” in the Union armies, according to Owens. In effect, when taken to the extreme, defamatory press was not just maiming the name of a presidential administration—it was destroying the possibility for the nation’s military, political and diplomatic success.
“[S]ay all we done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos,” to quote once more from Spielberg’s Lincoln, “that there is a great strength in a people’s union? Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere? Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to?” That, above all else, is why it is important to understand why Lincoln did what he did to curb destructive press during that awful time—the endurance of “awful sacrifice” is a necessary evil in the process of exhibiting, to the world, the “great strength in a people’s union.”
“If we submit ourselves to law…even submit to losing freedoms…we may discover other freedoms previously unknown to us,” goes another wonderfully written line in the film.
Hopefully, we may never again be forced to “submit to losing freedoms,” but in a time of perpetual and pestilential war, unfortunately Lincoln had no other choice. From the lessons we gain while looking backward at the flaws of years’ past, we must recognize the oftentimes-terrible realities of our own time and our own future.
In doing so, we must prevent all divisive situations in which these freedoms--our freedoms— may be lost, so that their loss is never in question again.
The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties - Mark E. Neely Jr. wrote this Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 1992, which still serves as a "comprehensive look at the issues of civil liberties during Lincoln's administration, placing them firmly in the political context of the time."
First Amendment Center - A valuable tool in finding articles, editorials and blog entries pertaining to the First Amendment and its importance in a modern context. This site is run by Vanderbilt University and the Newseum, which is an absolutely amazing, six-floor exhibit space in Washington, D.C., that includes the Cox First Amendment Gallery, which "explores...all [five First Amendment freedoms] through stories of real people who have used their freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition to express themselves and enact change."
Legal Information Institute - A comprehensive source for all things legal, especially from a federal vantage point. This site is run by the reputable Cornell University Law School.
Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion - Though I have not read it yet, I am looking forward to doing so within the coming months. It is sure to be an engaging look at this oft-forgotten aspect of the Lincoln presidency, written by Holzer, the former co-chairman of The Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and National Humanities Medal Recipient. He has authored, co-authored and edited 46 books and more than 500 magazine and journalistic articles on Lincoln—making him the only man alive who know more about Lincoln than Lincoln knew about Lincoln.