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The Despotism of Lincoln Conceded by Northern Authority
by Charles L.C. Minor

       If any are scandalized or startled at seeing Lincoln called usurper or despot, they are invited to observe that he was denounced as both by many great Republican leaders of his own day. The words in which Fremont, Wendell Phillips, Fred Douglass, and Horace Greeley, all stanchest of Republicans and Abolitionists, issued their call for the convention of Republicans that met at Cleveland, Ohio, May 31, 1864, for the sole purpose of defeating Mr. Lincoln's second election, were as follows: "The public liberty was in danger"; that its object was to arouse the people "and bring them to realize that while we are saturating Southern soil with the best blood of the country in the name of liberty, we have really parted with it at home."(1)
       Capt. C.C. Chesney, of the Royal Engineers, says, the garrison of Washington was being drained, not so much for Mead's re-enforcement as to check the insurrection in New York.(2) And when Lee had retired to the Rapidan, Chesney says of Meade in his front, "Large detachments were at this time made from his strength to increase the garrison which was to aid General Dix in enforcing the obnoxious conscription in New York." Again he speaks of Lincoln and his Cabinet as reducing the Army of the Potomac largely in order to carry out the conscription, which they had been obliged to postpone in New York.(3) Thirty thousand troops under General Dix occupied that rebellious city in August, 1863, and the obnoxious ballot was enforced without further resistance, in spite of "the strenuous opposition of Governor Seymour."
       Rhodes tells of "open dissatisfaction which in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin broke out into positive violence over the draft necessary under the call for 300,000 militia."(4)
       Among many records of the suppression of newspapers we have the following, in a letter of Gen. John A. Dix to Secretary Stanton, February 18, 1862: "Samuel Sands Mills, publisher and proprietor, and Thomas H. Piggott, editor, of The South, were arrested last evening, kept in the station-house during the night, and sent to Fort McHenry this morning. The office of The South was seized last evening, and is in possession of the police. John H. Mills, a partner in the concern, has also been arrested, and will be sent to Fort McHenry immediately."(5) The same has in a note, "For the full proceedings of the House on July 18, 1861, concerning the charges against May, the attack by a Baltimore man on the Federal troops, and Chief of Police Kane's connection therewith, see Congressional Globe for July 20, 1861, et seq."(6)
       The same gives Pinkerton's report of the arrest, about midnight, 12th September, 1861, of Messrs. Scott, Wallis, F. Key Howard, Hall, May and Warfield.(7)
       The same volume tells of the arrest of Messrs. Flanders Brothers, editors of the Gazette, Franklin county, N.Y., for complete opposition to the war and of exclusion of the Gazette from the mails.(8)
       Rhodes describes the suppression of a "disloyal" paper in Cincinnati, and the exclusion from the mails of the New York World and the suppression of the Chicago Times by General Burnside, and says of Burnside's orders, "Strange pronunciamentos were these to apply to the States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where there was no war; where the courts were open and the people were living under the American Constitution and English law."(9) Could there be more conclusive evidence of the attitude of Chicago and the great States he names, for which Chicago is a great commercial centre, than Rhodes' record, as follows: "The Times had gone beyond any print, North or South, in its opposition to the war and its devotion to the interests of the rebellion." Rhodes goes on to say that "the President yielded... but he deserves no credit... for he simply responded to the outburst of sentiment" in Chicago, manifested by action of the city government and the States government, "which sentiment," he adds, "was beginning to spread over the whole North."(10) Rhodes' note on page 253, quoted from the Chicago Tribune of June 5, 1863, gives more light on the matter and fixes the date of the events.
       We have Lincoln's own order to General Dix of May 18, 1864 to "arrest and imprison in any fort or military prison in your command the editors, proprietors and publishers of the New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce."(11) The two journals were the very embodiment of all that was most respected, so that General Dix hesitated, and was compelled to obey by peremptory letters from Secretary Stanton.(12) Rhodes mentions "the arrest of a crippled newsboy for selling the New York Daily News in Connecticut."(13)
       It would be difficult to characterize the above described usurpations in language stronger than was applied at the time. Rhodes quotes from a lecture of Wendell Phillips delivered in New York and Boston, December, 1861, as follows:

       Lieber says that habeas corpus, free meetings like this, and a free press, are the three elements which distinguish liberty from despotism. All that Saxon blood has gained in the battles and toils of two hundred years are these three things. But today, Mr. Chairman, every one of them habeas corpus, the right of free meeting, and a free press is annihilated in every square mile of the Republic. We live today, every one of us, under martial law. The Secretary of State puts into his bastile, with a warrant as irresponsible as that of Louis XIV, any man whom he pleases. And you know that neither press nor lips may venture to arraign the Government without being silenced. At this very moment one thousand men at least are "bastiled" by an authority as despotic as that of Louis.... For the first time in our history government spies frequent our great cities.(14)

       And Rhodes quotes protests of Robert C. Winthrop, in a speech of November 2, 1864 almost three years later of "newspapers silenced and suppressed at the tinkling of an executive bell a thousand miles away from the scene of hostilities."(15)
       And Rhodes goes on:

       Yet the matter did not go unquestioned. Senator Trumbull introduced a resolution asking information from the Secretary of State in regard to these arrests, and, in his remarks supporting it, pointed out the injustice and needlessness of such procedure. 'What are we coming to,' he asked, 'if arrests may be made at the whim or the caprice of a Cabinet Minister?' and, when Senator Hale asked, 'Have not arrests been made in violation of the great principles of our Constitution?' no one could gainsay it....
       In truth, the apprehension of men in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and northern New York on suspicion that they were traitors, instead of leaving them to be dealt with by the public sentiment of their thoroughly loyal communities, savored rather of an absolute monarch than of a desire to govern in a constitutional way.(16)

       Rhodes quotes from a letter from Schleinden to Sumner: "One of the most interesting features of the present state of things is the unlimited power exercised by the Government. Mr. Lincoln is in that respect the equal, if not the superior, of Louis Napoleon"(17); and Rhodes refers, too, to "the comparison constantly made in England between the coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon and the coup d'etat of Abraham Lincoln," and, excusing the use of such power, adds, "The county attorney of Illinois had assumed the power of a dictator"(18) and this as early as July, 1861.
       Rhodes' History of the United States is one of the latest records in this matter. While he eulogizes Lincoln as ardently as any other, he speaks of "the enormity of the acts done under his authority," and says, "he stands responsible for the casting into prison of citizens of the United States to be counted by thousands on orders as arbitrary as the Lettres de Cachet of Louis XIV," when the mode of procedure might have been, "as in Great Britain in her crises between 1793 and 1802, on legal warrants," and he pronounces Lincoln's conduct "inexpedient, unnecessary, and wrong."(19) And Rhodes says more specifically on the same page, "After careful consideration... I do not hesitate to condemn the arbitrary arrests and the arbitrary interference with the freedom of the press in States which were not in the theatre of the war and where the courts were open... that the offenders should have been prosecuted according to law, or, if their offenses were not indictable, permitted to go free." Besides all this, Rhodes gives unqualified commendation to Governor Seymour for a patriotic spirit and proper jealousy for his country's liberty shown in his bitter opposition to Lincoln's usurpations, and shows how very far Seymour's resentment towards Lincoln went. Rhodes even calls Lincoln a "tyrant." Of a proclamation issued two days after the edict of Emancipation (Sept. 24, 1862) he says, after giving particulars of it, that it "applied to the whole country.... and was the assumption of the authority exercised by an absolute monarch."(20) And he quotes Joel Parker, Professor of Law in Harvard, as follows: "Do you not perceive that the President is not only an absolute monarch, but that his is an absolutely uncontrollable government, a perfect military despotism?" And Rhodes says of Curtis, a Justice of the Supreme Court, that "he now published a pamphlet, entitled Executive Power, which called Lincoln 'a usurper' and his power 'a military despotism." And Rhodes adds, "Indeed it is not surprising that it gave currency to an opinion that he intended to suppress free discussion of political events."(21)
       Appleton's Annual Cyclopaedia for 1864 calls the Wade-Davis Manifesto, which will be described below, "a bitter attack on the President, remarkable as coming from the leaders of his own party,"(22) and this Rhodes quotes without dissent(23) and even gives the following commendation of Wade and Davis: "Their criticism of the Executive for suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus for arbitrary arrests, for the abridgment of the freedom of speech and of writing, was justly taken and undoubtedly had influence for good on the legislation of the session."(24) This commendation, like what he gives Seymour and others for bitter opposition to Lincoln and denunciation of him, sounds strange, coming from Rhodes.
       Rhodes twice concedes Lincoln's full responsibility for the despotic acts of his ministers, Stanton and Seward,(25) but appends to the latter the following a feeble defense indeed:

       It is not probable that Lincoln of his own motion would have ordered them, for although at times he acted without warrant of the Constitution, he had a profound preference for it.... It was undoubtedly disagreeable to him to be called by Vallandigham "the Caesar of the American Republic," and by Wendell Phillips "a more unlimited despot than the world knows this side of China," and to be aware that Senator Grimes described a call at the White House, for the purpose of seeing the President, as "an attempt to approach the footstool of the power enthroned at the other end of the Avenue."(26)

       The above follows his account of very notable arrests arbitrarily made in Northern States.(27)
       William A. Dunning, President of Columbia University, says in his Essays on the Civil War, dated 1989, that President Lincoln's Proclamation of September 24, 1862, was "a perfect plot for a military despotism," and that "the very demonstrative resistance of the people to the Government only made the military arrests more frequent," and that "Mr. Lincoln asserted the existence of martial law... throughout the United States."(28) He says, "thousands were so dealt with," and that "the records of the War Department contain the reports of hundreds of trials by military commissions with punishments varying from light fines to banishment and death."(29)
       Lalor's Encyclopedia says the records of the Provost Marshal's office in Washington show thirty-eight thousand political prisoners, but Rhodes says the number is exaggerated.(30) Holland's Lincoln shows that when Lincoln killed, by "pocketing" it, a bill for the reconstruction of the Union which Congress had just passed, Ben Wade and Winter Davis, aided by Greeley, published in Greeley's Tribune, of August 5th, "a bitter manifesto."(31) It is charged that the President, by preventing this bill from becoming a law "holds the electoral vote of the rebel States at the discretion of his personal ambition," and that "a more studied outrage on the authority of the people has never been perpetrated." A.K. McClure's Lincoln and Men of the War Times(32) gives the same account.(33) Channing says:

       Many persons in the North thought that the Southerners had a perfect right to secede if they wished. Some of these persons sympathized so thoroughly with the Southerners that they gave them important information and did all they could to hinder Lincoln in conquering the South. It was hard to prove anything against these Southern sympathizers, but it was dangerous to leave them at liberty. So Lincoln ordered many of them to be arrested and locked up. Lincoln now suspended the operation of the writ of habeas corpus. This action angered many persons who were quite willing that the Southerners should be compelled to obey the law, but did not like to have their neighbors arrested and locked up without a trial.(34)

       And Channing goes on, "The draft was bitterly resisted in some parts of the North, especially in New York city."(35)


1. It is interesting to compare these words with those in which John Paul Jones gave a warning to the great Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, when Jefferson asked and obtained from him an elaborate memorandum of his views of the merits of the Constitution when it was finished. His words in the memorandum are as follows:

       Though General Washington might be safely trusted with such tempting power as the chief command of the fleet and the army, yet, depend on it, in some other hands it could not fail to overset the liberties of America.... Deprive the President of the power or the right to draw his sword and lead the fleet and the army, under some plausible pretext or under any circumstances whatever, to cut the throats of part of his fellow citizens in order to make himself tyrant over the rest.

2. C.C. Chesney, A Military View of Recent Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland (London, England: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1863), Volume II, page 131.

3. Chesney, ibid., page 149.

4. James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States (New York: MacMillan Company, 1902), Volume IV, page 164.

5. War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II, Volume II, page 788.

6. Ibid., page 791.

7. Ibid., page 795.

8. Ibid., pages 938, 956.

9. Rhodes, History, Volume IV, pages 175, 253.

10. Rhodes, ibid., page 254.

11. Official Records, Serial Number 135, page 388.

12. Reference: Ibid.

13. Rhodes, History, Volume III, page 555.

14. Rhodes, ibid.

15. Rhodes, ibid., page 534.

16. Rhodes, ibid., pages 556, 557. Lincoln has been accused by no one else of "capriciousness." Does not this book show that the States Rhodes names, and all the rest where these despotic methods were used, were not "thoroughly loyal," and that at least four of them would have joined the Confederacy if Lincoln had not restrained them by these methods and other similar defiance of all constitutional restraint?

17. Rhodes, ibid., page 442.

18. Rhodes, ibid., page 514.

19. Rhodes, ibid., Volume IV, page 230. "Wrong" it was, doubtless; but was it inexpedient or unnecessary? Without it would the people of the States called "loyal" have continued the war or re-elected Lincoln?

20. Rhodes, ibid., pages 169-172.

21. Rhodes, ibid., page 170.

22. Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1864 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), page 307.

23. Rhodes, History, Volume IV, page 487.

24. Rhodes, ibid., page 229.

25. Reference: Rhodes, ibid., pages 169, 556.

26. Rhodes, ibid., page 556.

27. Reference: Rhodes, ibid., pages 555-557.

28. William A. Dunning, Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction (1898), pages 24, 39.

29. Dunning, ibid., page 46.

30. Reference: Rhodes, History, Volume IV, page 230.

31. J.G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, Massachusetts: Gurdon Bill and Company, 1866), pages 476ff.

32. A.K. McClure, Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Times Publishing Company, 1892).

33. See also James Schouler, History of the United States of America Under the Constitution (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1899), page 331ff.

34. Edward Channing, Short History of the United States (New York: The Macmillam Company, 1900), page 331.

35. Channing, ibid., page 332.

This article was extracted from Charles L.C. Minor, The Real Lincoln (Richmond, Virginia: Everett Waddey Company, [1904] 1928). Click HERE to order this book.

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