Monday, June 24, 2013

"Lincoln's Code" by John Fabian Witt (2013)

When President Lincoln took office in March of 1861 he was faced with a conundrum unlike any of his predecessors had been before. The Civil War was really a revolution, and the Constitution made little, if any, provisions for such an occurrence. Consequently, Lincoln was faced with unknown territory in the prosecution of the war. This enigma was made very clear in the recent movie “Lincoln” by director Steven Spielberg. But where the movie merely scratches the surface of Lincoln’s problems with the Legislative branch of the government, this book goes much further, covering the questions of Habeas Corpus, as well as the controversial blockading of the Southern ports.

General Winfield Scott had tried to establish some sort of order during the War with Mexico in 1843, but his efforts were largely one sided and met with only limited success. At the same time, France and England were engaged in the Napoleonic conflicts and were trying to come up with an actual code of their own. It would be almost a century more before the Uniform Code of Military Justice would be written and agreed upon by most of the world's civilized nations; although the fact that they still make war upon one another calls into question the "civilized" portion of the phrase.

At times, Lincoln found himself in positions which the Founding Fathers could never have envisioned, and consequently, Lincoln was forced to interpret the Constitution in a way that he felt would preserve the Union. Blockading a nation’s own ports was unheard of at the time; and probably has not been done anywhere since; but against all legal advice and counsel, that is precisely what Lincoln did in order to strangle the supply line flowing in from foreign ports, as well as to end the exportation of cotton to pay for those goods.

The suspension of Habeas Corpus is the one most readily identifiable example of Lincoln’s actions as President during the Civil War. At one point, during the infamous “Prize Cases” which arose out of the legal wrangling concerning the blockade, Lincoln increased the numbers of sitting judges on the Supreme Court to 10, rather than the traditional 9. This gave him the extra votes necessary to “swing” one of the other judges in his favor, delivering a 6-4 victory for the decision.

The book also explores the negotiations which took place between John Dix for the Union, and Daniel Harvey Hill representing the Confederate States. Working on prisoner exchanges and rules of captivity, the two men forged the framework for what would later become established rules of warfare throughout the rest of the 19th century. It should be noted that these rules seem only to have applied to American and European nations, as the slaughter of the American Indian continued well after the Civil War was over.

Parole was the main way in which an enemy combatant could be freed once captured. But often, the parolee would simply return to the lines again, making a farce of the whole system. A Code was clearly needed. One prominent politician, Charles Sumner, had even proclaimed that once the enemy “had departed from the great principles laid down by Christ…” anything was fair game.

From blockades and blockade runners, to the war tribunals; which are still an issue today; this book delivers on all levels. As a source of history it is researched well and written with a deft hand. And, as a testament to man’s capacity to wage war and commit atrocities against his fellow man, necessitating that we have some sort of Code of Conduct when it comes to warfare, it would be hard to find an equal.

No comments:

Post a Comment