Abraham Lincoln and the NSA (Just Go With It)

by Daniel Foster

I have read Rich’s magazine piece reclaiming Lincoln from his appropriators on the Left and his haters on the Right, and have started the book (which is excellent so far). It all has me thinking about the game Charlie Cooke sometimes plays wherein he asks himself, and us, whether we can honestly say we would have been on the “right side” of past political fights (think of the highlights and lowlights of roughly the 1773-1964 interval), given our present commitments (e.g., to limited government, or federalism, or expansive presidential war powers, or whatever.) This is a boring game for the intellectually dishonest, but if you’re willing to try in earnest to map your political views onto another time and place, instead of just uncritically indulging in the self-congratulation of a blinkered moral presentism, it can be quite revealing. 

So I asked myself whether I would have been “right” about Lincoln, or whether an 1861 Dan Foster (no doubt with more ambitiously manicured facial hair) would have indulged in the far-Right’s criticism of Lincoln as a “great centralizer” and tyrant. The most honest answer, of course, is who knows? I certainly think I would have been right about the evils of slavery. I think this even though I grew up in confederate Florida and New Jersey (the last of the northern states to fully emancipate), because there was no shortage of thinking men and women in the antebellum South who realized that human bondage was an abomination, even though they were deeply entrenched in a collection of political, social, and religious institutions more or less designed to obfuscate this truth. And I believe I would have been every bit the Union man then as I am now, in part because I think I would have found Lincoln’s reading of America every bit as seductive in 1861 as I do now. 

But beyond that I don’t have a clue. In the crappy days of 1861 or 1862, I might have been fidgeting for a negotiated peace. I might have considered Lincoln’s broad claims to emergency war powers dangerous and tyrannical. If I were a fly on the wall in a cabinet meeting in late 1862, I might have thought the Emancipation Proclamation impotent, imprudent, or both. Not knowing what a small-minded buffoon he secretly was, I might have been tempted to support McClellan when whispers started that he would challenge Lincoln in 1864. Later, when Grant and Sherman started ticking off victories, I might have conveniently forgotten about this flirtation, and when victory was in hand, I might have thought Lincoln a fool for not wanting to see the leaders of the rebellion hanged in front of the Capitol steps. 

I might have thought some of these things because I, like everyone else, am capable of being short-sighted and stupid, both momentarily and persistently. With the benefit of 150 years of history, I know that a negotiated peace that didn’t immediately end slavery would have been both immoral and unwise, that the Emancipation Proclamation was a brilliantly calculated act of triangulation, that McLellan was a disaster, that Lincoln likely would have been a much abler administrator of Reconstruction than either Andrew Johnson or the Radical Republicans turned out to be.

The one that sticks out at me, though, is the “I might have considered Lincoln’s broad claims to emergency war powers dangerous and tyrannical.” Because I  think 1861 Dan Foster would have thought that even if I had Rich Lowry’s defense in hand via some Back to the Future Part II-style act of temporal displacement. Yes, I would have seen that, in this case, the powers Lincoln claimed were largely relinquished, and the size and scope of the wartime government receded, after Appomattox. And that might have given me peace of mind. But I don’t think that would have changed my mind about the principle of the rule of law, which is important precisely because we can’t expect all of our leaders to be as wise and virtuous as Abraham Lincoln.

Which brings me abruptly to the NSA thing. As I’ve written, I’m concerned about the surveillance powers afforded the state by the PATRIOT Act and its descendents not because I know for sure that those powers have actually been abused by the current administration, but because they tempt any administration to abuse them. Likewise I’d be concerned about those powers whether Barack Obama were wielding them, or George Bush, or Abraham Lincoln. And while I would certainly be comforted if an in-his-prime Michael J. Fox showed up in a flying DeLorean with concrete proof that the Obama administration has wielded these powers responsibly, I’d also know that Obama’s successor might still be a different story–and that, anyway, hindsight is 20/20 and time travel is impossible. 

The point is that I want to be governed by laws because every man is capable of being as short-sighted and stupid as me. And the evidence that some man — a Lincoln, even — did some good — the end of slavery, even – in contravention of those laws doesn’t change that. 

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