Liberators (and Peace Democrats) then and now

Mackubin Thomas Owens addresses the mainstream media’s comparisons of Barack Obama with Abraham Lincoln. The comparisons are manifestations of the media’s infatuation with Obama. Not surprisingly, Owens finds the comparisons to be wanting. He argues that the more apt comparison is that of Lincoln with Bush:

[W]hen it comes to actions, the true parallel between Lincoln and a contemporary is between the sixteenth president and George Bush. It was Bush, after all, who arguably had to confront a crisis most like the one that Lincoln faced from 1861 to 1865: a rebellion “too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.”

Among the problems that Bush and Lincoln both faced included the decision to go to war in the face of substantial domestic opposition, achieving a balance between “vigilance
and responsibility” when it came to security and civil liberties, dealing with domestic opposition to the war that often crossed the line from dissent to obstruction, and the relationship between policy and military action and its corollary, civil-military relations.

Here Owens pauses to elaborate the comparison by reference to the Peace Democrats then and now:

During the Civil War, the so-called Peace Democrats or “Copperheads” actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.

As president, Bush confronted Democratic opponents of the Iraq war who echoed the rhetoric of the Copperheads. The latter described Lincoln as a bloodthirsty tyrant, trampling the rights of Southerners and Northerners alike. Today’s Copperheads described Bush as the world’s worst terrorist, comparable to Hitler. But the actions of the Copperheads of today went far beyond unpleasant words. Antiwar Democrats’ expressions about “supporting the troops” rang hollow in light of Democratic efforts to hamstring the ability of the United States to achieve its objectives in Iraq until the success of the surge took the issue off the table.

Owens then takes up the comparison of Lincoln and Bush on the issue of civil liberties. Owens invokes Lincoln’s famous 1863 letter to Erastus Corning and Bush’s 2005 radio address on the the failure of the Senate to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act. Mac’s comments are worth reading in their entirety and could of course be expanded at length.

In subduing the Confederacy, Lincoln took his bearings by his constitutional duty to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Though this is the subject for another day, it should be noted that, given the Supreme Court’s handiwork in the Dred Scott case, he was not an advocate of judicial supremacy.

As president and commander-in-chief, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, used martial law, instituted military trials, and exercised power to the limits of his constitutional authority in a manner that illuminates the loose nature of those limits when confronted by necessity. Yet Lincoln preserved the rule of law and became the Great Liberator.

As Daniel Farber notes in Lincoln’s Constitution, “several Civil War actions taken under military authority impinged on freedom of speech.” Perhaps best known is the case of former Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandingham. As commanding general of the Department of Ohio, Ambrose Burnside prohibited “the habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy.” In the spring of 1863, Burnside had Vallandingham arrested for violating the order in a speech calling the war “wicked, cruel and unnecessary.”

As Farber recounts, “he called upon his audience to [use the ballot box to] hurl ‘King Lincoln’ from his throne.” The echoes of Vallandingham in Senator Kennedy’s December 2005 Boston Globe column on the NSA terrorist surveillance program support the comparison Owens draws between Peace Democrats then and now.

In any event, the military commission found Vallandingham guilty of violating Burnside’s General Order No. 38 and ordered him confined until the war ended. The ensuing controversy elicited Lincoln’s letter to Corning defending the policy of military arrests in the name of public necessity. Lincoln ultimately resolved the controversy over Vallandingham’s conviction and confinement by banishing him to Confederate territory (from which he escaped to Canada).

From the case of Vallandingham, incidentally, Farber moves on to consider the case of the New York World. The case of the World also provides a context to the Democratic charges against the Bush administration on the subject of civil liberties. As Farber tells it:

Two journalists forged an Associated Press story about a bogus presidential call for drafting four hundred thousand men. (As a signal of desperation by the president, this “news” was supposed to drive up the price of gold, allowing the two men to make a quick profit.) The World fell for the stunt and published the story. Suspecting a Confederate plot, Lincoln ordered the arrest of the editors and publishers, as well as the seizure of the premises. This put the newspaper out of business until the order was countermanded.

President Bush has fallen somewhat short of Lincoln’s resolve in dealing either with the Peace Demorats in Congress or with their journalistic arm. Owens nevertheless fairly concludes that Bush has been “Lincolnian” in responding to the threats the country has faced since 9/11 and that Obama’s real test will come when he is actually the president. Owens doesn’t predict how Obama will fare. He simply observes that “it is always easier to be president when you’re not.”

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