Lincoln And Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, And The President’s War Powers, by James F. Simon
This book is probably the most even-handed book that one can imagine that deals with the contentious and still-controversial aspects of slavery, secession, and the war powers of the presidency. Although the author’s feelings about Chief Justice Taney are far more favorable than my own , the author manages to find a way to praise Lincoln for his restraint and point out the unprecedented circumstances he was up against as the president of the United States in the face of a massive rebellion against the legitimacy of his authority while also praising a corrupt border Southern aristocrat for his desire to preserve civil liberties even in the face of rebellion and civil war. This is by no means an easy achievement, and the author deserves considerable credit for sticking close to his sources as well as drawing useful parallels between Lincoln’s behavior and those of prior presidents like Adams and Jackson and later presidents like FDR and George W Bush, which puts Lincoln in a generally positive light. To be sure, it is not a hagiography of Lincoln, but it is a positive account of both Lincoln and to a lesser extent of Taney, and that the author could speak consistently favorably of both men is a rare achievement.
In terms of its structure, this almost 300 page book is a parallel biography of sorts, looking at the background of both Taney and Lincoln and then the ways in which their lives intersected from the late 1850’s onward. The author does an excellent job of placing the men in context of their times and their political beliefs, and showed both of them as being men of graciousness who were able to win over political foes through moderation and tact, for the most part. The author shows Taney’s own devolution in political thought from a period in his youth where he freed his slaves and defended an abolitionist minister in court to his period late in life where his insecurity about the position of the South relative to the North led him to seek to protect slavery and defend the legitimacy of secession and even treasonous behavior against the government in favor of those rebellious secessionists. Likewise, the author shows Lincoln and his restraint in dealing with civil rights compared with other presidents who used the expansive war powers of the office to drastically curtail freedoms, and shows how he felt compelled to stick up for military commanders who often behaved recklessly and precipitously without his advice or consent.
Overall, this is a book that ought to appeal to readers who have an interest in the history of civil liberties and have a wish to deal with an even-handed account of the tension between the authority of the president to act in such a way that the country may be preserved in the face of brutal conflict and the authority of the Supreme Court to restrict and restrain the conduct of the executive with regards to civil liberties. One may, for example, lament the way that martial law was declared somewhat excessively by many generals in the Civil War and especially the way that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen a massive erosion in civil liberties in the face of unending undeclared wars against Communism and Islamist terror, while also praising Lincoln for his decisiveness and restraint. Likewise, one may profess a desire that civil liberties be made more secure without having much sympathy for the way that Taney’s reputation was irreparably harmed as a result of his immensely unwise decision in the Dred Scott case. Still, whether one is a huge fan of Lincoln or not or one is an immense critic of Taney or not, this book provides a great deal of deep reflection and considered historical judgment on the context of freedom and liberty in the period before and during the Civil War, a subject likely of interest to many.
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