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Monday, January 09, 2006

Bush Isn't a Tyrant; He Isn't Even Lincoln

While I think there are dangers in underestimating the negative impact of war measures on the civil liberties that will survive into peacetime, Victor Davis Hanson offers a superb and concise analysis of why 2006 isn't 1862, at least not yet.

For those who don't instantly grasp the historical significance of 1962, allow me to elaborate. That was the second year of the Civil War, the conflict between the North and South that ultimately cost the nation more than 600,000 dead and millions of casualties.

It was a war so terrible that when it was done, fully a fourth of the state of Mississippi's post-war budget went for prostheses for veterans who lost limbs, to cite but one melancholy illustration.

Those under the age of 40 who know only what they heard in public schools about the Civil War would do well to read Shelby Foote's The Civil War. It has been justly compared to Thucydides' classic, The Peloponnessian War.

The point for our present discussion was that 1862 was also a time of incredible civil discontent North and South. Hanson captures the spirt of the time well in this quote from firebrand abolitionist Wendell Phillips:

“The North has poured out its blood and money like water; it has leveled every fence of constitutional privilege, and Abraham Lincoln sits today a more unlimited despot than the world knows this side of China.

"What does he render for this unbounded confidence? Show us something, or I tell you that within two years the indignant reaction of the people will hurl the Cabinet in contempt from their seats.”

The Northern papers were full of the most vicious criticism of the Union war effort in general and President Abraham Lincoln in particular. As Hanson notes, the criticisms levelled at Jefferson Davis, the former U.S. senator from Mississippi who served as President of the Confederate States of America, was often even more vitriolic.

The response in Washington at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1862 would likely leave the current leadership of the ACLU trembling in fear. Hanson notes neither Lincoln nor the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress were reluctant about doing whatever they thought necessary to advance the war effort:

"Despite the hysteria of the ACLU and the civil liberties fundamentalists, nothing we've seen so far comes close to the measures taken by Lincoln, which included suspending habeas corpus, closing down opposition newspapers, and jailing editors. Nor was Congress loath to use its power to punish those deemed insufficiently loyal or competent, whatever Constitutional rights were ignored."

In short, we have a long, long way to go before the current measures such as the Patriot Act approach the magnitude of civil liberties contraction reached during the Lincoln years. We will know we have arrived at such a sad state only and not until something like the 101st Airborne being ordered to Manhattan to arrest Executive Editor Bill Keller and shut down The New York Times becomes a reality.

Go here for the full Hanson analysis.