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The Price of Freedom By: Ted Lapkin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 26, 2005


It is the sort of stuff that one can read on a regular basis in the contemporary media. An impassioned crie de coeur against American presidential tyranny of the type that is voiced at protest rallies around the world. "The men in power are attempting to establish a despotism in this country, more cruel and more oppressive than ever existed before,” declared the speaker.

But these harsh words of denunciation were not uttered against the USA Patriot Act or the national security policies of President George W. Bush. Nor were these sentiments expressed by supporters of Australian Guantanamo detainees David Hicks or Mamdouh Habib. In fact, this incendiary pronouncement was neither made during our current century, nor during the one that preceded it.

This rancorous jeremiad was delivered during the midst of the American Civil War by Clement L. Vallandingham, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio. And Vallandingham’s wrath was aroused by the wholesale manner in which Abraham Lincoln infringed upon civil liberties throughout that four-year conflict.

In pursuit of victory over the South, President Lincoln didn’t mess around. He ordered the imprisonment of over 13,000 Confederate sympathizers without charge. And when a member of the U.S. Supreme Court lodged a protest against those extra-judicial incarcerations, Lincoln threatened to lock up Chief Justice Roger Taney as well.

Clement Vallandingham also paid dearly for his opinions. Two months after his provocative speech he was arrested by Federal troops and tried before a military commission on the grounds of making “treasonable utterances.” Vallandingham was found guilty and was forcibly deported from the United States to Confederate territory.

But before too much empathy emerges for Vallandingham, it would be worthwhile to note the reasons why he sought conciliation over conflict with the South. Clement Vallandingham considered the war to be entirely unnecessary because he had no desire to abolish the ‘peculiar institution,’ as slavery was euphemistically known. In fact, he considered blacks to be an irredeemably inferior race that was suited only for bondage and servitude. Thus Vallandingham turns out to be hardly the poster boy for civil liberties that he originally seems.

But what are we to make of Abraham Lincoln? He was the author of the Gettysburg Address that extolled the virtues of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And Lincoln also issued the Emancipation Proclamation and prosecuted the war that eradicated chattel slavery in the United States.

Yet Lincoln was enough of a real world statesman to realize that an ill-defended democracy will be a short-lived democracy. He understood that, in times of crisis, autocracy is sometimes needed to preserve autonomy. And when the United States was in peril, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated the intestinal fortitude to do what was necessary to preserve the Union and to achieve victory over the South.

The wartime security measures adopted by Abraham Lincoln were far harsher than anything imposed in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The Bush administration’s policies are a pale imitation of Lincoln’s decree that anyone "engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States is subject to arrest and trial before a military commission." If George Bush had implemented anything even remotely approaching the severity of Lincoln’s edicts, half of Hollywood would be in military detention right now

And yet the Confederacy never menaced the physical security of the United States in the manner of al-Qaeda. After all, the Confederates merely wanted to withdraw from the Union, and southern general Robert E. Lee never deliberately slaughtered northern civilians in order to advance that cause.

September 11, the Bali attack and the Madrid railway bombings were acts of war by a movement of retrograde religious fanatics whose idea of modernity dates from the 7th century. This is a conflict in which no compromise is possible because the world for which these jihadist holy warriors are fighting looks a lot like Afghanistan under the Taliban. No self-respecting democracy would accept restriction of women the veil and the subjugation of Christians and Jews as second-class “dhimmi” citizens. The sooner we accept the unpleasant fact that this is a war, the sooner we can get on with the even more unpalatable task of winning it.

Abraham Lincoln is hailed as a hero of democracy by many of the same people who revile George Bush as a tyrant. But if the Lincoln’s example teaches us anything, it is that freedom is never free, and that liberty must sometimes be protected by less than liberal means.



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