Archive for February, 2009

Reflections on the Symposium: Lincoln and Copperheads

February 8, 2009

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The first night of our Symposium, despite a few microphone issues, brought to Emporia Dr. Jennifer Weber of The University of Kansas.  Weber gave a talk, entitled The Rise and Fall of the Copperheads.  Weber presented a very well received presentation that dove into the highlights of the Copperheads and their efforts to thwart Lincoln at every turn.  As Weber joked, Lincoln faced fire in the rear, which prompted her to even think of titling her talk this, before she reconsidered.

As many of you know, Lincoln receives some criticism for his suspension of Habeus Corpus, his defiance of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his ruling Ex Parte Merryman, his allowance of the arrest and deportation of Clement Vallandigham (the fiery Democratic speaker who railed against Lincoln and policies of emancipation) and his willingness to use what was necessary to win the war, such as a blockade and emancipation measure that seemed a bit outside of the bounds of the current interpretations of the Constitution.  Lincoln faced massive criticism for his Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the aim of the war.  He faced pressure for inactivity from the armies and for the thousands upon thousands of bodies that piled up, particularly during the summer months of 1864 during Grant’s relentless Overland Campaign.

Can we blame Lincoln for stepping on the Constitution?  After enduring an administration that ignored the Constitution with detainees in Cuba, torture in secret prison camps overseas and warant-less wiretaps, should Lincoln and George W. Bush share the same shelf as men who did not necessarily protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?  Bush argued that he did these things because he was protecting the American people and that these methods allowed freedom to endure.  Lincoln argued that the nation was at war and he had to do everything within his power (and even outside the realm of his power) to save the Union.  While Congress agreed with him, the Supreme Court  (or at least one Justice, who ruled that African Americans were property, rather than citizens) did not.  We see a similar thing with the Bush administration.  Bush signed the Patriot Act, underwent very little criticism or scrutiny from Congress for his actions in regards to the Constitution and then, the Supreme Court ruled against him in recent rulings.  If both men did similar things, will Bush see his actions as president be re-assessed years from now, elevating him to a great president?  That is a question that I am unable to answer, but am curious what historians (who tend to be liberal) will have to say. 

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We have yet to learn enough about the inner workings of the Bush Administration.  What we do know is that Lincoln was a man who made a decision, writing a letter, statement or law, and then he put it away into a drawer.  As Weber reminded our audience, Lincoln almost caved under pressure from the Copperheads and considered rescinding the Emancipation Proclamation.  He wrote the order, placed it in the drawer and slept on it.  When he awoke, he decided not to send it because he believed that he would be damned for all time if he abandoned African Americans and the promise he had made to them.  Lincoln held firm, after thinking extensively about the issue.  He was willing to accept and seek counsel from many different types of people.  He led the people, rather than letting the people lead him.  All of those qualities of leadership are things that future presidents should try to emulate.  If they have, only time and reflection will tell.  Lincoln and civil liberties will certainly remain a hot and controversial topic for years to come.  We must decide if and when circumstances dictate for a president to make decisions that some may find unconstitutional.  For Lincoln, it really depends on the end of the story.  The Union won the war, the Union was preserved and thus, Lincoln’s actions seem a bit more justified.  Will we have to win the war on terror to say the same thing about George W. Bush???

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