Might the long-treasured notion of a visceral, uniquely American dedication to individual liberty, Constitutional governance, and democracy be no more than an empty boast? Might the pull of the broader human tendency towards authoritarian despotism be far stronger?
FEW PRESIDENTS HAVE interpreted their wartime powers as broadly as Abraham Lincoln, whose presidency—for all of its many successes—did have what some consider a “dark side.” Most famously, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the first year of the Civil War, responding to riots and local militia actions in the border states by allowing the indefinite detention of “disloyal persons” without trial. Habeas corpus, which literally means “you have the body,” is a constitutional mandate requiring the government to give prisoners access to the courts.
Lincoln ignored a Supreme Court justice’s decision overturning his order, and over the next few years, the Great Emancipator, in one of the war’s starkest ironies, allowed these new restrictions, which also imposed martial law in some volatile border areas and curbed freedom of speech and the press, to expand throughout the Northern states.
As the war drew to a close, though, some historians believe Lincoln may have begun to recognize the dangers of his own unprecedented expansion of presidential war powers. More than 13,000 civilians were arrested under martial law during the war throughout the Union. But it was in Missouri, in particular, nearly a thousand miles from the nation’s capital and far beyond the federal government’s day-to-day reach, that Lincoln was confronted with the most dramatic example of his internal security measures’ unintended consequences.
In the months before he was assassinated, Lincoln found, to his surprise, that he was unable to convince Missouri’s Republican leaders—who had grown accustomed to their newfound powers—to put an end to martial law in the state. The lesson he learned, historians say, may have been a simple one: “It is much easier,” says Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, “to put these restrictions in place than it is to stop them.”
Though he worried privately that these new powers might be misused, Lincoln publicly scoffed at the notion that his administration’s suspension of civil liberties would have any long-term consequences. In a letter published before the 1864 election, Lincoln compared the wartime measures to the bitter medicine a patient takes when sick. He could not believe, he wrote, “that the American people will, by means of military arrests during the rebellion, lose the right of public discussion, the liberty of speech and the press, the law of evidence trial by jury, and Habeas corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future . . . any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics [medicines] during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthy life.”
When Lincoln wrote these words, though, some historians argue, he may not have realized just how far things had gone in Missouri. Martial law was declared early in the war in the frontier state, which sent thousands of men to fight for both sides of the Civil War. With the population sharply divided on the issue of slavery, the state was riddled throughout the war by hundreds of small skirmishes, many of them involving neighbors fighting neighbors and guerrilla bands torching farms and crops.
Lincoln was certainly aware of the measures being taken in his administration’s name, but it was only after the 1864 elections that he felt he could do something about them. Lincoln had tried to persuade the military commander in the area to consider ending martial law earlier in the war, but he had been rebuffed. “The peace of the State rests on military power,” the officer had replied. “To relinquish this power would be dangerous.”
What Lincoln didn’t realize, scholars say, was just how much the fierce fighting in Missouri had hardened attitudes there—and how much the leaders of Lincoln’s own party had grown accustomed to the status quo.
The first signs of trouble appeared in the state’s election results. More than 165,000 Missourians had voted in the 1860 presidential election, with only 17,000 voters supporting Lincoln. But four years later, Lincoln had received 70 percent of just over 100,000 votes cast. The question, of course, was not just how Lincoln had grown so popular, but what had happened to the rest of the voters. “Essentially,” writes Neely, “much of the Democratic Party in the electorate in Missouri, likely a majority, had disappeared.”
See? No matter how dark the situation may seem, there’s ALWAYS a bright side to be found.
Neely, for one, believes Lincoln probably understood what had happened: The state’s Republicans had used their newfound war powers not just to shut down newspapers and arrest those they considered disloyal but to intimidate and disenfranchise the Democrats, many of whom supported slavery and some of whom were sympathetic to the Confederacy. The Republicans, in other words, reigned supreme in Missouri. They had the Army at their backs, and they liked it that way. “What Lincoln had attempted to guard against in his internal security policy had come to pass,” writes Neely.
Lincoln’s appeal to end martial law fell on deaf ears. “Allow me to assure you,” replied Gen. Grenville Dodge, the newly appointed military commander in the area, when he received Lincoln’s suggestion that martial law be repealed, “that the course you proposed would be protested against by the State authorities, the legislature, the [constitutional] convention and by nearly every undoubtedly loyal man in North Missouri.”
Stymied, Lincoln turned, instead, to the state’s new governor, Thomas Fletcher…Lincoln asked Fletcher to call for neighborhood meetings so preparations could be made to end martial law. “At such meetings,” Lincoln said, hopefully, “old friendships will cross the memory; and honor and Christian Charity will come in to help.”
To Lincoln’s surprise, the governor, too, refused him. “It would madden the true men of this State,” Fletcher wrote, “to talk to them of reliance on the ‘honor’ and ‘christian charity’ of these fiends in human shape.”
It was at this moment, historians believe, that Lincoln may have realized how far his civil liberties restrictions had been taken—and how difficult it might prove to restore those liberties. “Governments that assemble these powers tend to be rather reluctant to give them up,” says Foner. Particularly, it seems, during a violent, highly personal civil war. “Lincoln had miscalculated. He could not at first believe that liberty could be permanently diminished among the liberty-loving American people,” writes Neely. “Missouri proved him wrong.”
No government action is ever “temporary,” period. Whenever the people freely agrees to yield up their rights and liberty, whatever the reason given for it, they will never reclaim them without a fight.
Prohibition is new again too update! Will we ever learn the lessons our own history teaches?
It was immediately obvious when stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country that the economic effects of the novel coronavirus could be ruinous to the American restaurant industry. As an Onion headline recently quipped, “Study finds most restaurants fail within first year of it becoming illegal to go to them.”
As many as 75 percent of the independent restaurants that close in response to this pandemic are forecast to permanently fail, a horrifying prospect. My neighborhood is a veritable gastronomic tour of East Asia, to say nothing of the Mexican and North African cuisine, the local coffee shops, and the unspeakably perfect French-Vietnamese pastries. We would be poorer, culturally and literally, without them.
But the danger here isn’t only that these particular restaurants may never reopen for normal business: We also risk losing an enormous body of culinary knowledge that could take decades to recover. It happened to drink during Prohibition, and it could happen to food with COVID-19.
When Prohibition began in January of 1920, the United States was a nation teeming with what we’d now call craft breweries. Beer production measured in gallons had nearly doubled in the previous two decades, and though the total brewery count had declined from a peak above 4,000 in the 1870s, it was still at a healthy 1,300 when the Volstead Act took effect. After Prohibition ended, about half that number came back, but the industry was fragile and still subject to onerous regulations. Aside from a very brief post-war spike, American breweries steadily died off, bottoming out at a mere 89 nationwide in 1978.
That’s the beer environment into which I was born and which persisted until the mid-1990s. American beer was weak, bland, and boring compared to foreign options like Belgian tripels and the then-exotic Guinness Draught. Its sole purpose was intoxication. One of my college professors thought (likely rightly) he was imparting deep wisdom when he revealed we could look beyond your Nattys and Bud Lights to sample such lofty brews as Pilsner Urquell, which I would now characterize as a pretty basic Czech lager.
The beer market re-expanded after deregulation at the state and federal level allowed small-scale exploration of new brewing techniques and recovery of knowledge Prohibition destroyed. Pre-pandemic, we were blessed with more than 7,000 American breweries, an all-time high. That’s been fantastic for we who are alive and of drinking age now, but consider the timeline here: It took eight decades to reach pre-Prohibition brewery numbers. If this pandemic has a comparable effect on restaurants, we’d get back to this past January’s level of local dining options around 2097.
I’ve called it Restaurant Armageddon, but the carnage won’t be limited to just restaurants. It’s merely one among many industries we’ve willfully destroyed, ostensibly to combat a “plague” whose death toll is nowhere near serious enough3 to justify such wanton, suicidal destruction.