What Lincoln Said

Glenn Greenwald points to this Washington Times column by Frank Gaffney, in which Mr. Gaffney wistfully looks back to the good old days in which government officials who dissented during times of war could be hanged. Gaffney begins his column with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln but which in fact is a fabrication.

Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged. — J. Michael Waller

I put J. Michael Waller’s name there because he admitted the words are his, not Lincoln’s, but he insists the false attribution was the fault of a copyeditor. See Glenn’s post for details.

Anyone who knows anything about Lincoln ought to know he wouldn’t have said that. In fact, Lincoln was a war dissenter in his early political career. As a congressman in 1848, Rep. Abraham Lincoln (Whig – Illinois) gave this speech on the House floor, in which he criticized President Polk’s war with Mexico. I wrote about this speech in March 2003, back when everybody and his uncle were shushing dissent from the plan to invade Iraq.

Lincoln began by acknowledging it was controversial to speak out against a war already in progress:

When the war began, it was my opinion that all those who, because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously approve the conduct of the President, in the beginning of it, should, nevertheless, as good citizens and patriots, remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended. Some leading democrats, including Ex President Van Buren, have taken this same view, as I understand them; and I adhered to it, and acted upon it, until since I took my seat here; and I think I should still adhere to it, were it not that the President and his friends will not allow it to be so.

From there, Lincoln reviewed Polk’s claims and justifications for war, and finds them flimsy and possibly fabricated. Rep. Lincoln also introduced a resolution calling for President Polk to be held accountable for the claims he made to get the U.S. into the war.

(James Polk shook a declaration of war against Mexico out of Congress by claiming Mexican troops had advanced into U.S. soil. In fact, as an eyewitness wrote many years later, the Mexicans were deliberately provoked so that Polk could have his war. See Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, chapters 3-7.)

Good think nobody hanged Mr. Lincoln back in 1848, huh?

In his post, Glenn Greenwald quotes Theodore Roosevelt:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole.

Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

I like that quote so much I put it on a T-shirt some time back. Anyway, as Glenn says — it’s Frank Gaffney and his ilk who are the real traitors.

Update: See also Digby, the Carpetbagger, Roger Ailes.

8 thoughts on “What Lincoln Said

  1. There’s a lot of similiaries between Lincoln’s war with Mexico speech and the run up to the Invasion to Iraq. I like the part where Lincoln mentions about cheating the superficial thinker. I think Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the Neocon minions cheated a bunch if modern day superficial thinker. ” We don’t want the smoking gun to be in the form of a mushroom cloud”, They’ll follow us home….?

  2. One should remember however that Lincoln, under the pressures of civil war, attempted to suspend habeas corpus, and that TR, impelled by the fact that all four of his sons were in uniform during WWI, spoke virulently against German-Americans, advocated internment for them and campaigned to have the German language stricken from all curricula.

    Not endorsing the latter actions, mind you–just pointing out that even great men have their inconsistencies.

  3. President Abraham Lincoln DID suspend the use of the writ of habeas corpus…Exactly as he was required to do by the U.S. Constitution…Right therre in blackand white, put down by the Founding Fathers to guide us through every possible convolution of our political and cultural adolescence to a hoped-for maturity we like to think we’ve reached…

    MF’ers that fabricate hatefulo and gurtful Licoln quotes ought to be strung up on the highest lampost in D.C….In Chains…

  4. “Among the 13,000 people arrested under martial law was a Maryland Secessionist, John Merryman. Immediately, Hon. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States issued a writ of habeas corpus commanding the military to bring Merryman before him. The military refused to follow the writ. Justice Taney, in Ex parte MERRYMAN, then ruled the suspension of habeas corpus unconstitutional because the writ could not be suspended without an Act of Congress. President Lincoln and the military ignored Justice Taney’s ruling.” From http://www.civilliberties.com.

    Never said Lincoln wasn’t successful in suspending habeas corpus. As you can see, the constitutionality of his act was questioned at the time. Not saying the suspension wasn’t a practical necessity from Lincoln’s point of view, either.

  5. JD, I don’t think your point is relevant. The main point of the post is that the quote from Gaffney’s column is not attributable to Lincoln and that Lincoln, in fact, advocated dissent where necessary. Lincoln himself received a significant amount of criticism in his day, was not a particularly popular president, and would have lost the 1864 election to McClellan (who promised to end the war) had the troops not voted for him in overwhelming numbers. He surely made some policy errors, as well. But he would not have advocated stifling criticism. He also retroactively got permission from Congress for his more drastic actions at the beginning of the Civil War, which is more than you can say for the current administration. You can argue whether or not suspending habeas corpus was a necessary step, but that’s not your argument either, so it’s moot.

    TR made his fair share of errors, too. Most of our American heroes are not the gods we depict them as. However, they did not advocate the erosion of the liberties on which the country was founded, as these neocons writing columns seem to think they did. And that’s the whole point.

  6. My implied point was that both sides of political arguments in this country use (or abuse, depending on whose ox is gored) the utterances of historical figures to support their views, usually without considering the whole of the figure’s career. Are you saying that advocating the internment of people based on their nation of origin does not advocate erosion of liberties (TR)? Abrogating freedom of the press by shutting down copperhead newspapers does not constitute erosion of liberties or stifling of criticism (AL)? Maybe it’s time to think before quoting.

  7. Pingback: Talk Nation » Look who’s emboldening the terrorists now!

Comments are closed.