Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Lincoln wanted the voters to pick Taney's replacement? Not so fast, Senator Harris

Tonight's Vice-Presidential Debate in Salt Lake City included a historical claim by Senator Kamala Harris of California:

"In 1864, one of the, I think political heroes, certainly the President, I assume you also, Mr. Vice President, is Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection and it was 27 days before the election. And a seat became open on the United States Supreme Court. Abraham Lincoln’s party was in charge, not only of the White House, but the Senate. But Honest Abe said, “It’s not the right thing to do. The American people deserve to make the decision about who will be the next president of the United States. And then that person can select who will serve for a lifetime on the highest court of our land.” And so Joe and I are very clear: the American people are voting right now and it should be their decision about who will serve on this most important body for a lifetime."

The facts?

On October 12, 1864 Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott case and constant thorn in the side of Abraham Lincoln's administration of the Union war effort, died.

Abraham Lincoln did not nominate Salmon P. Chase (his Secretary of the Treasury) to the post until December 6, 1864 (he was confirmed the same day!), a month after his victorious reelection over Democrat George B. McClellan.

The circumstances seem to support Senator Harris's claim, superficially anyway. She alluded to Lincoln actually saying this was his rationale to someone in her "history lesson," but she did not attempt to quote honest Abe. It is well that she did not, as there was no such strategy at play here.

Why the delay then?

1a) There WAS an election--which Lincoln believed was essential to winning the Civil War. If he was defeated, the war was likely going to be lost--Union and emancipation would be in jeopardy.

1b) Lincoln was quite worried about what a nomination would do to HIS party--which had many factions, who each had a favorite for the Court.

2) Congress would not reconvene until December--so what was the rush? He would be President until March 1865 regardless of the election's outcome and the Senate would remain Republican, so he could afford to wait until the lame-duck session and keep the conservative and radical factions of his party focused on the election and the prize in Lincoln's hands. Doing so was dictated by political considerations (and, by extension--at least in Lincoln's mind--, strategic military considerations), but not as Senator Harris suggests.

There is no primary source evidence that suggests Lincoln decided to wait with any intention of allowing a President McClellan to appoint the new Chief Justice. None. At all.

But the most absurd thing about this fantasy is the idea that a lifelong partisan like Abraham Lincoln--and a man who had to suffer through four years of sanctimonious lecturing and posturing from Andrew Jackson's appointed Chief Justice (whom Lincoln had previously blamed, in part, for recklessly bringing about the events that led to the Civil War)--would ever allow a racist backsliding doughface Democrat like George B. McClellan to get within half an inch of filling that Supreme Court seat. Never.

To suggest such a thing (Senator Harris), or to allow it to go without negating and mocking it (Vice-President Pence) simply tells us that the people trying to remain/become the 48th/49th Vice-President of the United States know shamefully little about our 16th and, quite possibly, greatest President.

For more on this, please see Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 731-736.

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