The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

Synopsis

If Abraham Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator, he was also the only president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Indeed, Lincoln's record on the Constitution and individual rights has fueled a century of debate, from charges that Democrats were singled out for harrassment to Gore Vidal's depiction of Lincoln as an "absolute dictator." Now, in The Fate of Liberty, one of America's leading authorities on Lincoln wades straight into this controversy, showing just who was jailed and why, even as he explores the whole range of Lincoln's constitutional policies. Mark Neely depicts Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as a well-intentioned attempt to deal with a floodtide of unforeseen events: the threat to Washington as Maryland flirted with secession, distintegrating public order in the border states, corruption among military contractors, the occupation of hostile Confederate territory, contraband trade with the South, and the outcry against the first draft in U.S. history. Drawing upon letters from prisoners, records of military courts and federal prisons, memoirs, and federal archives, he paints a vivid picture of how Lincoln responded to these problems, how his policies were actually executed, and the virulent political debates that followed. Lincoln emerges from this account with this legendary statesmanship intact--mindful of political realities and prone to temper the sentences of military courts, concerned not with persecuting his opponents but with prosecuting the war efficiently. In addition, Neely explores the abuses of power under the regime of martial law: the routine torture of suspected deserters, widespread antisemitism among Union generals and officials, the common practice of seizing civilian hostages. He finds that though the system of military justice was flawed, it suffered less from merciless zeal, or political partisanship, than from inefficiency and the friction and complexities of modern war. Drawing on a deep understanding of this unique period, Neely takes a comprehensive look at the issues of civil liberties during Lincoln's administration, placing them firmly in the political context of the time. Written with keen insight and an intimate grasp of the original sources, The Fate of Liberty offers a vivid picture of the crises and chaos of a nation at war with itself, changing our understanding of this president and his most controversial policies.

Excerpt

"The Union with him in sentiment, rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism." With those words, Alexander H. Stephens, the former Confederate vice president, dismissed the constitutional ideas of Abraham Lincoln. To Stephens, Lincoln's almost superstitious love of the Union caused him to misunderstand its Constitution and to destroy the country's liberties. Though Stephens's words are often quoted, Lincoln's constitutional views were neither mystical nor mysterious, and their nature should no longer be in doubt. The tedious historical debate over whether or not President Lincoln's policies were constitutional is a legacy of the brittle party platforms of a bygone era and the constitutional moralizing of sore losers like Stephens.

Rather than continue the fruitless debate over the constitutionality of Lincoln's acts, this book will examine instead the practical impact on civil liberties of the policies Lincoln developed to save the Union. The numerous arrests of civilians by Northern military authorities during the Civil War sparked controversy then and continue to do so. Except for a handful of celebrated cases, however, no one knows exactly who was arrested or how or when. No one knows whether the controversial suspension of the writ of habeas corpus had the results Lincoln intended. Without ignoring what Lincoln and other major political protagonists of the day said, this book will focus on what they in fact did.

This might well be called writing constitutional history from the bottom up. The phrase is hardly original, but its application to constitutional history is somewhat novel. Naturally preoccupied with politicians, judges, and lawyers and what they have said, constitutional historians have rarely looked at what happened after those august persons spoke. In the case of the Civil War, no one has ever systematically examined records of civilians arrested by military authority after Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

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