Sometimes Human Justice Gets in the Way: Lincoln and Grant
January 26, 2023
I’m no longer reading up on Lincoln. I’m reading up on Grant. Ted Putsch would like both, I think, and may already be well-versed. Both men were raised in lowly circumstances. Both were unusually humble and defenders of the lowly. Both were continually sneered at by elites. Both made emancipation of slaves their chief mission. Both . . . wait for it . . found occasion to suspect habeas corpus.
A younger relative of mine is libertarian. It motivates everything he does. The first factoid he ever learned about Lincoln was his suspension of habeas corpus. That was enough for him to permanently place Lincoln on his evil-person list. From there, he immediately bought into the invective that Lincoln didn’t give two hoots about freeing slaves—his sole concern was preservation of the union.
In fact, from the very beginning, Lincoln purposed that quenching the ‘rebellion’—such it was called at the time—would go hand in glove with destroying the
institution of slavery. But he could not just outright say it. He knew he had to first build a consensus. Many were the northern abolitionists who did outright say it, and they were immediately marginalized into a minority camp. Minorities don’t win at the human game of government. William Seward (by far the front runner leading up to 1860–everyone supposed he would be president, not Lincoln) also did say it, giving a lofty speech invoking a “higher law.” Not only was he marginalized by those to whom the sole mission of freeing slaves was insufficient motivation, but he was also marginalized by those who supposed there was no higher law other than the human experiment of ‘government by the people.’
The only way Lincoln’s Emancipation would fly in all the North, not just with the abolitionists, was for him to sell it as a military strategy. White northern troops fretted over who would mind the household while they were gone. White southern troops had no such concerns; their slaves could keep things humming. Free those slaves and the playing field was leveled. In fact, it was more than leveled: those slaves would begin to conspire against their masters.
Two sacrosanct, as human principles go—standards of justice took front and center stage in the Civil War years: state’s rights and habeas corpus. I can see Putsch railing against any infringement of either:
”Tyranny …. in soft measured voices, done in secret, and with powdered silk gloves is STILL TYRANNY.”
Oh yeah, I can easily see it! And I’d tend to agree, in a relative sense—but only a relative sense. Fact is, such lofty human principles stood squarely in the way of a far greater good: the liberation of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. Robert E Lee personally loathed slavery. He had never owned a slave. But he took up the call of what he considered even more sacred. ‘State’s rights’ became his clarion call. Consequently, he signed on to command Southern troops, enshrining slavery as the ‘right’ of the state to decide, not some meddling Union to impose their standards from afar.
‘Man is dominating man to his injury’—even (and in this case, due to) when they run by their own self-invented concepts of justice. In the greater removed picture, looked at from our time, only the elimination of slavery matters. One Union should split into two? It’s like what Bud said when he threw away the anti-rattle clip he couldn’t figure out how to reinstall—“What’s more rattle on a Ford?” So it is with human self-government. What’s one more division of mankind in a sea of many divisions?
Here the two bedrock principles of American justice, habeas corpus and state’s rights, stood squarely in the way of real justice for hundreds of thousands of Blacks—for Whites too, for that matter, since Jefferson wrote of the South: “The parent storms [in domination of his slaves]; the child looks on . . . puts on the same airs . . . and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”
One is reminded (a bone for science-fiction aficionados) of ‘Childhood’s End, in which the alien overlords paid no attention whatsoever to ‘state’s rights,’ immediately and decisively ending the cruel spectator sport of bullfighting.
Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was a measure he deemed essential to preserve the Union, which action would enable the freeing of slaves. Certain journalists were openly encouraging desertion from the Northern army. ‘I should shoot some guileless plowboy deserter and not the guileful propagandist who induced him to do so?’ he posed.
Grant’s suspension of habeas corpus during his presidency is more directly connected with the welfare of Blacks than was Lincoln’s. In the early days of Johnson’s presidency, the Ku Klux Klan arose. Reports were that it commanded the active participation of 2/3 of southern Democrats whites, and the tacit participation of the other third. By many measures, Blacks were worse off than during slavery. The white aristocracy manipulated them into situations just as oppressive but with no obligation to provide for them.
Unspeakable and well-documented atrocities became routine. Not only might Blacks be easily beaten or killed, but also white Republican southerners who aligned with them. Murderers could not be brought to justice. Witnesses were too intimidated to speak out, and with good reason; no jury of peers would convict Klansmen, and the retribution against witnesses would be severe. Grant sent in federal judges, and suspended habeas corpus in enough instances that Klansmen would turn upon each other in efforts to get off or gain lighter sentences for the crimes that a non-federal judge would excuse. Within a few years, he had broken the back of the Klan. It’s later reemergence is in name and ideology only (just as Baal worship kept coming back, even though guys like Elijah would clean it out from time to time.)
Habeas corpus and state’s rights—noble as far as human principles go, but not a guarantee that evil cannot, not only exist, but prevail.
Anyone thinking that God works through America (or any other country—America being the only topic of consideration here) is invited to look at the Andrew Johnson administration. “Be Like Abe” flies, as does (to a lesser degree, but still doable) “Be Like Ulysses,” but not “Be Like Andrew.”
By the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln succeeded in bringing justice to Blacks. Andrew Johnson undid it all. Grant’s work was to undo the damage that Johnson had wrought and he largely succeeded, but only temporarily. What justice might have prevailed if Lincoln had been immediately succeeded by Grant, with no Johnson in between?
Like Lincoln and Grant, Johnson too was brought up in lowly circumstances. He too was a self-made man. There the similarities end. Johnson was intensely racist. He was intensely vindictive (at first) to the former Confederacy, favoring severe punishment (akin to that imposed on Germany after WWI?) in contrast, Lincoln had been completely non-vengeful. Worse, vengeance was personal with Johnson. Vengefulness was a way of getting back at the aristocratic elites who had ridiculed and looked down upon him all his life. Northern abolitionists, who also (unlike Lincoln and Grant) favored harsh punishment for the South, at first thought they had found an ally in Johnson. But in fairly short order, he gave up despising the southern white aristocrats, and began kissing up to them, as though hoping to be anointed king of their club, his racist orientation a perfect match for theirs.
God works through human governments? What if there had been no Johnson, and Lincoln’s ideals carried directly over to Grant. Shortly after the war, General Grant’s man told local transport companies in New Orleans that if they continued their practice of segregation, he would ban all that company’s cars from the road. According to Ron Chernow, author of Grant, “once the original hubbub over desegregated streetcars subsided, the locals had cheerfully adopted the new system and the excitement died out at once.” Chernow cites it as an example of the “startling early revolution in civil rights [that] would be all but forgotten by later generations of Americans.” What if Johnson had not come along to poison the well? Don’t you think if God ran the show through human government, he would not have?
A little bit on roll here. Sorry. I just wanted to kick back a little at those who think human standards of justice from the Founding Fathers are the bee’s knees. They're better than their absence, generally speaking, but sometimes they get in the way of true justice.
To be continued . . .
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