Book Excerpt: The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship

The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship

By Colm Gillis

KDP, 2016



Civil War: The 11-week Dictatorship

As is widely acknowledged, the seeds of the Civil War crisis lay in the parallel political, but divergent economic, tracks of an expanding Union. Two economies had developed, therefore two ways of life had developed, therefore dissolution of the Union became an issue. [4] Agreements like the Missouri Compromise (1820) were struck but the sheer energy of US growth meant that the question of slavery, or more accurately the question of the dual-economy, only intensified with every westward push.

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1860 was the year when the gauntlet was thrown down to the South. Abraham Lincoln, a moderate who supported the maintenance of slavery in the South but opposed it elsewhere, had defeated the more radical anti-slavery Senator William Seward for the Republican nomination. He became the President-in-waiting but his moderation did not satisfy the increasingly militant South. Not long after Lincoln’s triumph, South Carolina seceded, followed by six more States after only six weeks. The first Fort Sumter incident in South Carolina, prelude to the starting pistol of military hostilities, took place on President Buchanan’s watch. [5]
Buchanan had tread softly and eight slave-owning States remained loyal to the Union while he remained Commander-in-Chief. He was resigned to having his hands tied behind his back by legalities. Buchanan saw nothing either constitutionally or legally that could empower him to act against the South. Practical considerations also framed his thinking. The determining factor for the President was an interpretation of the emergency law of 1795 and Buchanan was certain in his own mind about the unconstitutional nature of a war against a State, at least on the grounds that would have existed in 1860. Congress supported this position although both parties didn’t admit to the legality of a State seceding either. [6]
As Lincoln took office, some Northerners were even arguing at the time that discontented States should be allowed leave, which was logical politically because it would have given the industrial North power over the remainder of the slave-owning rump who hadn’t seceded. Even Seward, now Secretary of State, did not advocate a militant approach towards the belligerents. Dunning, one of the foremost scholars of the insurgency, said that this was consistent with the prevailing custom and that the “accepted narcotic for quieting any nervousness caused by threats against state rights had been the soothing formula: “Each government is sovereign within its own sphere.”” [7]
Yet Lincoln accepted nothing less than the maintenance of the Union, not ruling out force. This was made clear in his inaugural address. It was not all ‘blood and iron’ and something of an olive branch was held out by the rail-splitter. The red line in practical terms for Lincoln was the integrity of Union authority in the Confederacy; i.e., any nodes of Union authority and administration must be accessible (Fort Sumter one node that was inaccessible at the time). Notably, in his first address as President, he spoke of the Union as “perpetual.” Generally, however, the tone he struck at his unveiling was conciliatory and his sentiments about ‘Union’ might have appeared to be mere rhetoric. [8]
In mid-April, Fort Sumter was stormed by the Confederacy and Lincoln’s red line had been crossed. Support poured in from the North for military action but four Southern States also seceded as Lincoln declared war. The Union was suddenly weakened by seizures of important strategic facilities like the Harpers’ Ferry arms factory and even some Indian tribes rebelled. [9]
Lincoln, beset by an avalanche of crisis, was no Caesar but he soon began crossing the constitutional Rubicon to deal with the most existential crisis the US has faced in its two-and-a-quarter century history. Curiously, he relied on the same law of 1795 relating to the calling out of the militia that Buchanan had relied upon to take no action! [10]
After the fall of Fort Sumter, there was a critical period in US history and an 11 week dictatorship up to US Independence Day, 1861. Lincoln took a series of measures that were unconstitutional, illegal and extra-legal (i.e. the last term means that the measures were outside what was authorized by the constitution without breaking the constitution itself).
Only a few days after Fort Sumter, the Confederate States were blockaded; such a manoeuvre unlawful save for foreign wars. [11] The next day, monies were diverted from the Treasury to private individuals in New York whom Lincoln trusted; these financiers were directed by Lincoln to use their business acumen to furnish support for the military effort. Such an act was clandestine and Lincoln did not reveal this matter until over a year later. If done in peacetime, this diversion of funds would have constituted blatant corruption. In the week following this accounting trick, habeas corpus was suspended along a route in the North between Washington and Philadelphia that served as a military line. Two weeks before the end of the 11-week dictatorship, a similar order was issued concerning another military line. There was consternation in legal circles at these measures and the President was reminded that only Congress had the power to suspend habeas corpus. The President was not done even with these radical steps. A week after the first suspension of habeas corpus, in early May, Lincoln increased the size of the military without the approval of the legislature. The significance of this is that Article I, 8 of the American Constitution expressly states that only Congress has the power “to raise and support armies.” Finally, restrictions on freedom of speech were imposed and treasonous individuals were liable to be arrested. [12]
In summary, Lincoln seized control of the military, clamped down on free speech and assembly, flouted the rules of war, stole from the Treasury and put the money in the hands of those not representing the US government or people. In addition, he rubberstamped arbitrary arrest and disavowed consultation with Congress. Chief Justice Taney at the time made particularly bitter remarks about the powers of arbitrary arrest that Lincoln delegated:

[Lincoln] certainly does not faithfully execute the laws, if he takes upon himself legislative power also, by arresting and imprisoning a person without due process of law … the people of the United States are no longer living under a Government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found. [13]

Lincoln’s manoeuvres were illegal but not apolitical. Neither were they illegitimate although he lacked the authority to perform such actions (which technically qualified him as a despot). With great alacrity, Lincoln saw that there was something above, in terms of importance, and underneath, in terms of being foundational to, the Constitution. That was the Union itself. [14] The Union was the political ‘bread-and-butter’ of the nation. Political unity was what gave the laws their reality, not the other way round.
After he had revealed to the US and the World the New World dictatorship, Lincoln spoke to Congress on Independence Day. Lincoln invoked self-preservation, the natural right of the Union to save itself from itself. Measures that he had undertaken, which went against the letter of the law, did not violate the spirit of the law and this spirit was the self-preserving right of the Federal Union.
Apart from the fact of the measures and actions themselves, there was the significance of the executive, the legislature, and the judicial being vested in one man. This is the mark of absolutism and dictatorship. The US destroys countries in the modern world for having such traits yet Lincoln, one of the great American heroes, may have been targeted by a Federation like the US if one had existed in 1861.
Furthermore, Lincoln had demonstrated the position of the President within the US system and shown that he could gather in as much power as he could muster into his person during an emergency. It was this that was, and is, controversial, more so than the self-preservation aspect of his argument for extraordinary action. Power had been concentrated in the hands of one man. [15] All had changed and changed utterly.
Lincoln nonetheless offered a famous and powerful rationale in his speech of July 4, 1861:

Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself to pieces lest one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it? [16]


[4] One need only look at the European Union nowadays to understand how economic factors can erode or consolidate political ties.
[5] Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (2nd Ed.) Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (Open Court, Chicago, 2014); pp. 240-250.
[6] Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics William Archibald Dunning (Macmillan, London, New York, 1904); pp. 3-7.
[7] Ibid.; p. 1.
[8] Emancipating Slaves Hummel; pp. 250-254.
[9] Ibid.; pp. 254-256.
[10] Essays on the Civil War Dunning; pp. 16-17.
[11] Since Lincoln was acting within a federal contract, the war against the South could not be interpreted as a ‘foreign war,’ at least from the point of view of the North.
[12] Constitutional Dictatorship: Constitutional Government in the Modern Democracies Clinton L. Rossitter (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1948); p. 343, pp. 350-356.
[13] Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (2nd Ed.) Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (Open Court, Chicago, 2014); p. 258.
[14] Constitutional Dictatorship: Constitutional Government in the Modern Democracies Clinton L. Rossitter (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1948); pp. 356-359.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.; p. 358.

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