The con­ceit of our times

It’s not true that the na­tion has never be­fore been so di­vided

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

If we were to be­lieve the main­stream pun­dits, that the slan­der and calumny that passes for de­bate about pol­i­tics and the slovenly pop­u­lar cul­ture is some­thing new, we might think that noth­ing like this ever hap­pened be­fore. But the plain facts are that from its very ori­gins the repub­lic has than been rocked by po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ment, some of it dan­ger­ously vi­o­lent. The con­tro­versy over slav­ery, which among sev­eral other is­sues led to the Civil War, is the most sig­nif­i­cant ex­am­ple of a more troubled time. No­body has yet fired on a mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, though that may come if the hot heads there suc­ceed in their se­ces­sion scheme.

Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, the pres­i­dent that, but for a few Epis­co­palians in Vir­ginia, ev­ery­body ad­mires, fa­mously re­fused to per­mit the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to ex­am­ine a treaty he pro­posed reg­u­lat­ing com­merce with Great Bri­tain. He ar­gued that only the Se­nate was as­signed that role by the Con­sti­tu­tion.

As early as 1807 Pres­i­dent Thomas Jef­fer­son warned Congress that Aaron Burr, who had killed Jef­fer­son’s ri­val, Alexan­der Hamil­ton, in a duel, was plot­ting from New Or­leans to cre­ate a new coun­try west of the Ap­palachian Moun­tains. Burr was put on trial for trea­son. Jef­fer­son, in­vok­ing the new con­cept of “ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege,” re­fused to sub­mit ev­i­dence sup­port­ing Burr. Burr emerged from the trial with his rep­u­ta­tion fur­ther be­smirched and with no fur­ther hope for the pres­i­dency he had long cov­eted.

Sim­i­larly, the cliche that the feud be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and the me­dia is some­thing new in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is but a reprise of old stuff. Abra­ham Lin­coln, though con­duct­ing a bit­ter war that would go to the bru­tal fin­ish, per­mit­ted news­pa­pers openly sym­pa­thetic to the South to pub­lish op­po­si­tion news and com­men­tary, though de­rided as the work of snakes. The “Cop­per­head press,” as these news­pa­pers were called, pro­duced fiercer and more imag­i­na­tive vit­riol than any­thing on the In­ter­net to­day. In ri­poste, a Mas­sachusetts mob of Union sol­diers tarred and feath­ered Am­brose Kim­ball, edi­tor of the Es­sex County Demo­crat, for his pro-Con­fed­er­ate edi­to­ri­als.

Lin­coln stopped short of with­draw­ing the press free­doms oth­er­wise se­cured by the First Amend­ment. Zechariah Chafee Jr., a free speech scholar, ob­serves that “un­doubt­edly [Lin­coln] per­mit­ted a very large num­ber of ar­bi­trary ar­rests … ‘Must I shoot a sim­ple sol­dier boy who deserts,’” Lin­coln asked of his crit­ics, “’while I must not touch a hair of a wily ag­i­ta­tor who in­duces him to desert?’ He was pro­ceed­ing against men who were so far within the test of di­rect and dan­ger­ous in­ter­fer­ence with the war that they were ac­tu­ally caus­ing de­ser­tions, and even then he acted to pre­vent and not to pun­ish.”

A one­time con­gress­man from Ohio, Cle­ment L. Val­landigham, a Cop­per­head and de­fender of states’ rights who op­posed slav­ery, ar­gued that the na­tional gov­ern­ment could not con­sti­tu­tion­ally com­pel the states to abol­ish the “pe­cu­liar in­sti­tu­tion.” The war, he said, was waged by “King Lin­coln … for the pur­pose of crush­ing out lib­erty and erect­ing a despo­tism.” He wanted to re­move Lin­coln from of­fice. When his sup­port­ers burned the of­fices of a Repub­li­can news­pa­per, the Day­ton Jour­nal, Val­landigham was ar­rested and charged with speak­ing “dis­loyal sen­ti­ments and opin­ions, with the ob­ject and pur­pose of weak­en­ing the power of the Gov­ern­ment in its ef­forts to sup­press un­law­ful re­bel­lion.” He was sen­tenced by a mil­i­tary tri­bunal to “close con­fine­ment” un­til the end of the war. Lin­coln in­stead ex­iled him to the Con­fed­er­acy.

Don­ald Trump might se­cretly like to ban­ish Robert Mueller or the edi­tor of The New York Times to Py­ongyang or Ha­vana, but he wouldn’t dare. The na­tion is not di­vided enough for that. Yet.

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