Author Profiles 2007:
FRANK GREGORSKY: Discovering Lincoln at age 11 -- was that serendipitous? Did somebody say "you need to know this man"? How did it happen?
Hon. FRANK J. WILLIAMS: Serendipitous. In sixth grade, you sat -- if your last name began with a "w" -- in the last row. And in my case, it was under a great portrait of Lincoln. I liked the face. Mrs. Taylor saw this. Knowing that I loved American history, she helped direct me to study Lincoln. My lunch money -- 25 cents a day -- went to buy used Lincoln books, mostly paperbacks. Sandburg's Lincoln, Carnegie's Lincoln -- not very good biographies, but it was a beginning. From where I lived in Cranston, I took the bus right down to Broad Street in Providence, where they used to have a plethora of used book stores. Not now.
And then my collecting caught on. Not to get ahead of the story, but the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana has about 12,000 books and pamphlets, 40,000 clippings, and 20,000 everything else -- numismatics, philately, political paraphernalia, photographs, maps, prints, statuary, you name it. Someday we'll give them to a school that has no such collection. Apart from the collectibles, some of which you see here, it's a research library.
So I collect, write and lecture -- all because of [sitting in a certain place in sixth grade].
GREGORSKY: Abraham Lincoln -- the politician, the lawyer, the President who was indispensable to saving this nation. I'd like to aim [the Lincoln part of our discussion] at people who are 35 or younger. That means quick takes on a series of books. You'll get to deliver an impromptu annotated bibliography, with some editorializing along the way [grinning].
WILLIAMS: Even though I'm older than 35? [smiling]
GREGORSKY: That's why we have an editor -- no, I trust you can boil 'em down. But first, let's cover your interest in the law.
On page 57 of Judging Lincoln [ISBN 0-8093-2391-5, Southern Illinois University Press 2002, 202 pages], you offer this profound observation from Edmund Burke: "This study [of law] renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources. No other profession is more closely connected with actual life than the law. It concerns the highest of all temporal interests of man -- property, reputation, the peace of all families, the arbitrations and peace of nations, liberty, life even -- and the very foundations of society."
I would add -- and Burke probably said as much elsewhere -- that the seasoned lawyer is also like the claims-adjuster for an insurance company. Over time, you see all the gory details of human nature and lives in turmoil and conflict. A lawyer needs to endlessly balance frameworks and principles on the one side, as against peculiarities and wholesale messes on the other. Am I capturing one of your basic themes about law and governance?
WILLIAMS: Yes, and the challenges change. What Burke was offering, Frank, is a vision of what lawyers should be -- and not every lawyer, unfortunately, is like that.
GREGORSKY: Ahhh. Got it.
WILLIAMS: That's why I give that quote to new lawyers when we swear them in. This is something to aspire to be.
What I think Burke was also addressing was the poor public perception of lawyers. People misinterpret what Shakespeare said -- "the first thing we do is kill all the lawyers." He wasn't saying that because lawyers were grubby and greedy. (Read Dickens for the latter message -- Bleak House, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and others.) Shakespeare [through his characters] was saying that if we're going to have anarchy so our small group can take over the country, the first thing we do is kill all the lawyers -- who stand in the way of anarchy.
GREGORSKY: I always thought Lenin uttered the "kill" recommendation.
WILLIAMS: No, I think it's Henry the 5th -- one of the Henry plays.
GREGORSKY: But Lenin [and subsequent communists] actually carried it out, for the same reasons you say: The law stands in the way of raw power.
WILLIAMS: Right. Exactly. And you know what Lord Acton said: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
From Lincoln's Lawyer to an mp3 Book Survey
GREGORSKY: An article you wrote for Lincoln Lore put the spotlight on Edward Bates. In every Civil War book I've read, this man -- Attorney General under President Lincoln -- is a third-tier operative, weighing in now and then. Yet he was the nation's top lawyer, during a time of unparalleled crisis. What do you think we, or in this case younger people, need to know about Bates?
WILLIAMS: I think [third-tier] underrates him. Although Lincoln was, as my book puts it, "the lawyer in the White House" on certain issues, he did rely on Bates. Bates was one of only two Cabinet members to endorse the Emancipation Proclamation!
GREGORSKY: That's what startled me in your account.
WILLIAMS: And he made that endorsement even though he thought they should still have colonization [to resettle U.S. blacks overseas]. Doing my paper on Bates, I came to see how, when Lincoln was acting as the politician-President -- and not a lawyer -- Bates was the lawyer who pulled Lincoln back from the precipice. He did so with lawyerly advice.
GREGORSKY: Um-hmm, um-hmm.
WILLIAMS: So I give Bates higher marks than heretofore.
GREGORSKY: Why did he endorse the Emancipation Proclamation?
WILLIAMS: Because even though he was a Missouri guy, he knew that the "institution" [of slavery] was a terrible inheritance and the cause of the war. It was also against the principles of the Declaration of Independence -- which is what Lincoln contended.
GREGORSKY: So Attorney General Bates was capable of very large thought.
WILLIAMS: Yes he was. In fact -- whether this is "large" or not I don't know -- but when things were not going well in the field, he thought (as did some others) that Lincoln should take the field -- as Commander-in-Chief -- which was a totally different concept. Even without that, what Lincoln did as Commander-in-Chief totally differed from all prior Presidents.
GREGORSKY: Did he really say to General McClellan, "General, if you're not going to use your Army, do you mind if I borrow it for a while"?
WILLIAMS: Yes! Or after Antietam, when McClellan complained of fatigued and sore-tongued horses, Lincoln telegraphs back: "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?" McClellan was greatly offended, because he had the ego of a Napoleon [if not the skills].
Vice-President Hamlin, U.S. Grant and Strategic Focus
GREGORSKY: Back to your 2002 book Judging Lincoln -- in the Foreword, Harold Holzer cites your presidency of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. He was by far Lincoln's most effective general, and during 1869-76 a less than effective two-term President. I read McFeely's biography of Grant that came out mid-1980s, but otherwise have no sustained exposure.
WILLIAMS: I'd recommend a later  biography of Grant -- by Jean Edward Smith. Smith also wrote a great biography of Chief Justice John Marshall, and he just completed a manuscript, which I read, on FDR. Jean Smith is an excellent scholar and writer.
GREGORSKY: Good; thanks, and I'll make that a link. Meanwhile, what three or four fundamental points would you offer a younger listener or reader about this man "U.S. Grant?"
WILLIAMS: True grit. Hard scrabble farm. Can't make it in the civilian world. Totally dependent on his wife Julia Dent (whose father was a slaveholder). Total evolvement as a commander in the Civil War: By 1864, he was not the same general as he was when he was made commander of all Union armies in 1861.
WILLIAMS: Just as Lincoln evolved as Commander-in-Chief, and military leaders like Sheridan and Sherman (who were close to Grant) evolved with him. So it was that education, some of it painful, that led to Grant's successes -- and to his popularity with the President and the people.
GREGORSKY: And his soldiers?
WILLIAMS: His soldiers respected him, though it was a different kind of respect -- more respect than adulation. With McClellan, it had been adulation. But the soldiers still voted for Lincoln's re-election over McClellan [when the latter was nominated by the Democrats against Lincoln in 1864]. They had this respect for Grant because, after the first defeat in the Spring ‘64 campaign, instead of retreating and recrossing the river, he just kept marching around Lee. And Lee kept falling back to the next battle. They [the Union troops] saw that -- for once -- they had a general with no intention of retreating and who knew how to fight.
GREGORSKY: Grant understood what would become known as "total war." Not that America could function as a dictatorship, the way France sometimes did during wartime, but he wanted to kill rebel troops, and march to places where decisive engagements were likely.
WILLIAMS: Rather than focus on geography, seizing towns and cities, Grant knew: It's the enemy army we're after, not necessarily Richmond. Lincoln came to understand this better than most of his generals, too. "If you can get Richmond, that's nice, but that's not what the goal should be."
GREGORSKY: One of my favorite historical exercises is to look at our country right after a great crisis period has passed. Who was there to lead the follow-up phase? Who would either bungle the peace or build the new arrangements that preserved it? In the case of FDR in 1944, what if he hadn't pushed aside Vice-President Henry Wallace -- this dreamy populist and ultimately Communist-sympathizing man? And what if Harry Truman hadn't been there [as Vice-President in April 1945 when FDR died] to take over and go on to build a credible Cold War infrastructure that contained Stalin -- where would we have been as a free people?!
WILLIAMS: Well, that's true.
GREGORSKY: So, the obvious question for you regarding the crisis of the Civil War -- Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin [rather than Andrew Johnson] could have been there in April 1865 when Lincoln was killed. What's your read on that?
WILLIAMS: Hamlin would've been a better President than Andrew Johnson. He was more skilled, more educated; and, having been a Senator from Maine, he got along with Congress. Now, we can speculate ‘til the cows come home as to how Reconstruction would have turned out [under a Hamlin Administration] -- I hope better than it did with Johnson.
Global Crisis, with No End in Sight
GREGORSKY: By common consent, our three greatest Presidents are Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Each governed during an era when, if things had gone the other way, there'd likely be no United States today. (Other Presidents -- Jackson, T.R., Truman, Reagan -- get high marks for achieving big things in slightly less perilous times.) I used to work with two fellows -- Neil Howe and Bill Strauss -- who, back in 1991, produced a "generational history" of the USA, stretching back to colonial times. Their book is big on the fact that, every 75 to 80 years, this enterprise called "America" enters a secular crisis -- a civilizational test; a threat to our existence -- like none but the oldest generation still living has faced. They contend that one of these crisis periods occurred during 1675-90, driven by events in England -- let's leave that contention aside. The indisputable "crisis eras" are the 1770s, followed by our inability to govern under the Articles of Confederation; the 1850s and ‘60s; and then again with the Depression followed closely by World War Two.
Bottom line: Based on this cyclical pattern, the 1991 Howe-Strauss book forecast a new Crisis Era to start around 2003 and not climax until roughly 2020. Now, you don't have to buy this rigid cyclical model to believe we are in a global crisis today. Bush wants to bring back military tribunals, in the past used only by Lincoln and FDR; by itself, that suggests America has moved into a new and more dangerous phase of history. Never mind deficits or pollution or immigration, which are relatively manageable. The much greater threat is from radical Islam, of the "jihadist" strain, which trains and unleashes a few million would-be martyrs against democracy.
Sorry for the long run-up, Judge, but -- what do you think of this blast of cyclical landscaping [and the claim] that the U.S. has passed into a make-or-break dynamic similar to the ones faced by Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
WILLIAMS: I agree with it. I didn't know about this cyclical theory and it is amazing how they picked 2003, so close to 2001 [and] 9/11.
GREGORSKY: Howe and Strauss say the defining characteristic of a Crisis Era is that nearly everyone agrees on the one sweeping problem or threat. In FDR's case, it was actually two -- first the Depression, then Hitler. But still, a set of things where people of different political views can agree: Yes, this is a big matter. Sure, there are heated disagreements on how to handle it. Partisanship during the 1930s was unrelenting and bitter. Republicans hated FDR as much as Democratic Party activists hate Bush now. Even after Pearl Harbor, Republican members of Congress declared in public that FDR knew it was coming, or wanted something like it to happen, or both.
So, next question: If this is in fact a Crisis Era -- the type of civilizational test only our oldest countrymen have lived through -- do we have that kind of definitional consensus on what the big problem is?
WILLIAMS: No, we don't have the consensus. Our country is very divided. Whether the Republicans or the Democrats have a slight majority in Congress, do you think it's going to solve the problem of jihad? If we pull out of Iraq tomorrow, and let the civil war continue there, and Iran and Syria eventually subsume Iraq -- is that going to take care of the problem? If Israel somehow gets rid of its disputatiousness with the Palestinians, do you think that will end the problem?
GREGORSKY: No. The biggest Middle East war of our lifetime took a million lives -- Iran versus Iraq during 1980-88 -- and it had absolutely nothing to do with Israel.
WILLIAMS: Most Americans do not know what it is to sacrifice. They don't know what patriotism is. Flying flags is wonderful. But what about enlistments in the armed forces? What about universal military training? That is, everyone serves, and not just in the military. How about the old Civilian Conservation Corps [model], the Works Progress Administration, or VISTA?
GREGORSKY: Part of that used to be known as "preparedness." Harry Truman advocated "UMT" -- universal military training -- every year of his presidency. "We have just been through a catastrophe," he would remind Congress, and now you ought to know how much preparedness matters.
WILLIAMS: We don't have the guts to do it. When Congressman Charley Rangel talked about bringing back the draft, he got beat up by the New York Times and by his own colleagues. Mark my words -- there will come a time when we will have a draft again. And it will not be through our choosing or through legislative deliberation. It will be because of a series of terrorist attacks in our country and on our allies.
Detainees in Limbo, and a Population in Denial
WILLIAMS: I'm also thinking of people [in allied countries] who attack us for creating detention in Guantanamo Bay. Let me ask a rhetorical question: Where else are you going to put these people who are alleged terrorists?
GREGORSKY: Right. Exactly.
WILLIAMS: Where else? Look, this [jihad] situation doesn't squarely fit into [the 1947] Geneva Convention, except maybe the treatment of them under Article Three. They target civilians, don't wear uniforms, have no chain of command -- so, where [do you put the ones you capture]? And why do they get the rights of prior [combatants in more conventional wars]?
Now, I say this with a full disclosure, because the President, through the Secretary of Defense, asked me to serve on the Military Commissions Review Panel. Tribunals that are supposed to be held in Guantanamo come to this panel in Washington, and we then review [what they do].
GREGORSKY: Looking for what?
WILLIAMS: For errors of law. If there are errors of law, we send it back. If we concur, or we want to make a recommendation, different from the tribunal's, we send it to the President or his designee.
The President created this [review panel] in 2003 -- yet there hasn't been one tribunal held. Why? Because of appeals in the federal courts. The Razul decision in '04 gave the rights of habeas corpus to the detainees, who are not U.S. citizens. They flooded the U.S. district courts with habeas petitions. Hamdan -- Osama bin Laden's driver (he admits to being the driver, but he doesn't admit to knowing what was going on) -- finally gets his case to the Supreme Court. They decide it in June of 2006, saying essentially that, without congressional authorization, the President cannot use military tribunals.
Before they adjourned last fall, the Congress did pass the Military Commissions Act of 2006, authorizing the President to conduct these tribunals. They can still have the review panel on which I sit. There is an appeal from the President's final decision to the D.C. Circuit Court, which is fine, but there can be no more writs of habeas corpus. But now this is being challenged -- and it's back in federal court, even as the Administration is planning on the first tribunals this summer.
GREGORSKY: And you say -- ?
WILLIAMS: I look forward to when we can proceed. This is just one part of a global war. We are talking about how to deal with those charged with terrorist activities. That struggle doesn't even get to the mindset of Americans.
GREGORSKY: Say more about that.
WILLIAMS: I go around giving talks about Abraham Lincoln and civil liberties. Until now, this never had global meaning. These are educated, sophisticated audiences -- loyal Americans -- and I'm building a rapport with them. I'm not confrontational, and I don't think I'm arrogant. I tell them what America and Lincoln went through in the Civil War. There were 4,200 military tribunals of American citizens sanctioned by the Lincoln Administration.
GREGORSKY: Forty-two hundred -- I didn't realize it was that sweeping.
WILLIAMS. The writ of habeas corpus was suspended, first by Lincoln, and then approved by Congress. Article One, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution states that habeas corpus can be suspended "in cases of rebellion or when the public safety requires it." Now, I don't hear President Bush seeking suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Maybe his Administration could have done a better job of "selling," of being more educational (although they had other things on their plate). But, when I give this talk, and I give the other side of the picture -- factually, historically, putting it in context, not weighing in on this President's judgment or congressional actions -- they look at me, Frank; their eyes are open, they're like deer in the headlights.
GREGORSKY: These sophisticated listeners are saying --
WILLIAMS: "Oh my God, I didn't realize this. I didn't know that -- what you're telling us is truly thought-provoking."
GREGORSKY: You can convey the same [type of aggressive governance from the time of] FDR -- the wiretaps, the opening of mail, spying on pro-Nazi operatives, FBI infiltration of the German-American Bund, the trashing of Charles Lindbergh --
WILLIAMS: -- and the internment of Japanese-Americans.
GREGORSKY: Well, they have heard about that part. But I'm talking about what FDR's people did before Pearl Harbor, most of which gets ignored by every mainstream liberal historian. The very same authors go on panel shows today and don't grasp the parallel between now and the late 1930s. But never mind the intellectuals, the people in general don't know what it's like to go through a global military crisis. Tough policies and an array of "abuses" are how we got out the other end and were still able to call ourselves an independent country. So I guess your point is -- it's gonna take a few more shocks, to get unity.
WILLIAMS: Yes -- and more acts required by the government that threaten our civil liberties. No one likes such actions. But there have always been these changes in what we've accepted and expect in our democracy. And the good thing about it is that, after every crisis, it reverts to a norm when our civil liberties and rights are again secure, or at least less at risk.
So you can't say it's the end of the world because the writ of habeas corpus might be suspended for detainees who aren't even U.S. citizens. Are they entitled to the same rights as a soldier who gets [certain protections] under the Uniform Code of Military Justice?!? That's what some people want, including the New York Times -- [their editors] wanted these detainees to be tried in our U.S. district courts. Those courts are not equipped for trying terrorist suspects. That's why you have military tribunals in wartime.
WILLIAMS: So let me tell you this. Assuming Hillary Clinton is elected President in '08, and we have these terrorist attacks, she will wind up doing the same thing that Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Bush did -- maybe more.
GREGORSKY: Or if John McCain is there, he will do it -- and he will have less of a problem.
WILLIAMS: He will do it more easily than she, but she will wind up doing those things.
"Universal" Means Universal
GREGORSKY: Looking ahead toward this darkening time, and thinking of mass preparedness, shouldn't we start with UMT as opposed to a draft?
WILLIAMS: Yes, but can you -- look, we can't even come up with a coherent immigration policy. How are you going to get Congress (Democrats and Republicans) as well as the President to come up with a UMT when it costs so much, creates another bureaucracy, and will have both parents and kids running around like Chicken Little claiming "the sky is falling"?
GREGORSKY: The voters supported a vastly simpler version of it called AmeriCorps.
WILLIAMS: That's not much of a precedent. There is no political courage left in this country today.
GREGORSKY: That's a stunning statement. You want that in the record?
WILLIAMS: Yes I do. But realize that I'm speaking [of government] as a class and a culture. Of course you'll find individual people with political courage. But you tell me, as a democratic culture, where have you seen us come together and exercise political courage?
GREGORSKY: The closest would be the aftermath of 9/11. Even Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy said we have to go into Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban -- they supported Bush's ultimatum, plus the Senate passed the Patriot Act by 99 to one.
WILLIAMS: And ironically, if Bush had done what Lincoln did, and went to Congress for military tribunals [as the least bad way] to deal with detainees, it would have passed.
GREGORSKY: Yes. He didn't strike while the iron was hot.
WILLIAMS: And all we've done is argue in court, because he thought he had the inherent power as Commander-in-Chief and under the "law of war" -- whatever that is; try and explain that to the public, and they look at you as if you have two heads.
GREGORSKY: Building on your mention of irony, in FDR's case, he had to get us ready, do the rearmament, get the diplomacy right -- before Pearl Harbor hit. Pearl Harbor then vindicated many of the things he did or tried to do during the previous four or five years. Bush comes in and the Pearl Harbor-style shock occurs at the start of his government. That gives him a fairly free hand for six, eight, nine months. And then? You could make a decent case (and some of my reasonable Democratic friends do) that Iraq should not have been the next phase. Iraq has been a $500 billion distraction, even while Afghanistan still needed to be pacified. Can one make a nuts-and-bolts argument against how this Administration chose its targets?
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Absolutely -- and it's not over yet!
GREGORSKY: Getting back to what could happen on our own soil -- you'd make an explicit pitch for Universal Military Training?
WILLIAMS: I would, I would. It's past time. Senator Pell from this state, now retired, was considering it. The problem is convincing the American people and the Congress to do it, and under what form. The downside is: What kind of a bureaucracy are we going to get out of it? How would we eliminate the corruption and lack of fairness that permeated the Vietnam-era draft?
GREGORSKY, Well, the UMT only requires two or three weeks a year, right? It's more like the Swiss-Israeli model.
WILLIAMS: That's right; it's one alternative. Another one is the full boat: After high school, everybody goes, and serves a certain amount of time at minimum wages, room and board -- and that's it. Afterwards, they can go on with life.
GREGORSKY: Women, too?
WILLIAMS: Everybody! "Universal" means universal, and that includes those who are handicapped.
GREGORSKY: Aaaahh. Wow. An unbelievable mega-administrative --
WILLIAMS: Well, that's the issue -- the cost and the complexity. But you have to weigh all of this against the results, Frank. What results do we expect? We need this in order to survive as a democracy. I happen to think we are in a period of self-delusion and hubris. Since [that period right after] 9/11, we have not demonstrated the resilience and the fortitude to continue the fight as an entire culture. It has been left to just a handful of people, and they have been beaten up on. The media is as much responsible for this as is the split [between the two] parties. As long as we have that, we are in deep trouble. Do people want to sacrifice anything today?
GREGORSKY: The families whose breadwinner joined the Reserves are doing most of the sacrificing. He or she signed up for two weeks a year and instead gets two years in the Middle East.
WILLIAMS; Well that's it, and there aren't enough of them either. The Reserves and the Guard. But, it's getting close to 5:00 -- I have to go. Now, what you need to do is call me and we'll continue this on the phone.
. . . which is what happened 11 days later. We are back to the Civil War, including the new book by Judge Williams and two of his colleagues from the Lincoln Forum.
Telephone Addendum: More on the Proclamation
GREGORSKY: In your 2006 book with Edna Greene Medford and Harold Holzer, you seek to fill a gap in the historic coverage and modern understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.
WILLIAMS: The genesis of the book was a Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg about six years ago. Edna gave a paper on the reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation by African-Americans. I was so taken with it I suggested to her and Harold that we collaborate on a book. It would have three sections. Edna's would cover the reaction of African-Americans to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Harold -- who really started his career as an expert on the iconography of Civil War and Lincoln prints -- would cover the images relating to the Proclamation's issuance, and I would do a combination of the political, military, cultural, and legal factors surrounding the Proclamation. This became The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, published by Louisiana State University Press in May of 2006 [ISBN 0-8071-3144-X, 162 pages, $29.95 for the hardcover].
GREGORSKY: What do you think of the reaction to date?
WILLIAMS: It's still a little bit early for a book like this to get a "full" reaction, but it's been very positive in the sense of [reviewers being willing to] cover all of these areas.
GREGORSKY: Thanks for getting LSU to send me the book. I read it early this week. Edna goes into the future a lot -- about the decades afterwards. Of course you can't blame those on Lincoln, but she puts [the Proclamation] in a much longer time-frame. That makes your book more than a Civil War account.
WILLIAMS: Her concern, and Harold and I share it, is that the vision and hope of the Proclamation, especially to African-Americans, have not yet really been achieved. It took a long time to even get to the point where we find it today. That's what Edna demonstrates in her part of the book.
GREGORSKY: Which is part of the story. For this tape, though, take us back to 1862 and '63. Real-time, the tradeoffs, the risks --
WILLIAMS: The Emancipation Proclamation was in large part a military measure. As Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln could take property from the enemy. And slaves were "property" -- the valuation of each slave was written next to his or her name in the Tax Assessor's books. There were very large legal concerns whether the Commander-in-Chief -- even when acting in that role -- could issue a document disenfranchising so many who were, at least according to the Constitution of the time, the "rightful owners" of those human beings. That's one reason he pushed so hard for the Thirteenth Amendment -- so that it could cement the legal basis for freedom.
GREGORSKY: Many of those people (plantation-owners, etc.) whose "property" would be taken away from them -- yes, they were in the rebellious states, but they themselves were not necessarily rebels.
WILLIAMS: That's right. And the country, then as now, was very property-conscious. While we think dealing in human beings as chattel is offensive and horrific, it happened to be the culture in which this country existed. So all of these concerns [came together to face Lincoln] -- the political, legal, military and moral. The Proclamation wasn't just a military measure.
Now, compare it with the great Gettysburg Address (272 words) or the Second Inaugural, one of the shortest addresses ever given by a President.
GREGORSKY: How do you mean?
WILLIAMS: What did those documents do? Legally? Nothing! The Proclamation actually did free people. Because it was a military measure, aimed at getting the "property" away from the so-called rightful owners, it applied only in areas not yet occupied by Union forces.
GREGORSKY: Therefore it couldn't be lofty or evocative; the Proclamation had to be very stringently stated.
WILLIAMS: Yes. And Lincoln, as the lawyer he was, was concerned about [opponents] attacking it in the courts, just as the current President has been on the way he conducts the war on terror. Lincoln was thinking this through. That's why I get so concerned when people attempt to impugn the document. They say, "Well, it didn't free anyone." As the Union forces advanced, the Emancipation Proclamation freed millions. It freed millions of others, who walked, or ran, when the grapevine reached the southern plantations; they heard that there was finally a government in Washington that was supporting freedom.
GREGORSKY: One question from a professional editor here. I would imagine that, despite the friendship of the three of you, this book [with Edna and Harold] had to be written as three distinct signed essays. You could never have merged all of your views -- it would've been insane to try to produce the manuscript that way.
WILLIAMS: That's exactly correct, and that's how we did it -- mostly through e-mails, and attachments, and drafts. I'd like to think that each section complements the other. That's what made it a much easier project among colleagues. There were differences, especially in approach and priorities. But we had not one argument. Freedom of choice [and of] expression, if you will, helped the book.
Lincoln versus the Ideologues (every last one)
GREGORSKY: Let's tackle one other recent book. I was not familiar with it when we [met in your judicial offices]; but in our [audio track which is part of this web] display, you mention The Real Lincoln by Thomas J. DiLorenzo. Is there a single major point or finding of value there, and what background does DiLorenzo bring to the Lincoln debate?
WILLIAMS: Not much. He's a libertarian, which means he's against any government or any discipline that has to do with our structure as a democracy. Whether it's big or small, government does have the responsibility to oversee crises (also big and small).
GREGORSKY: DiLorenzo calls the Civil War "unnecessary." And I was appalled to find that Walter E. Williams contributed a Foreword that claims:
Despite being black, Walter Williams makes an argument for states' rights in the Foreword (and many other places) that sounds like George Wallace in 1963.
WILLIAMS: I don't know Mr. Williams -- we're not related.
GREGORSKY: [Laughter] He's a George Mason U. professor. For at least 25 years, he has also been a columnist and media commentator for low taxes and small government.
WILLIAMS: Well, that's consistent with DiLorenzo.
GREGORSKY: But the fact that's he black and did a Foreword for DiLorenzo's book -- lauding states' rights in the context of a Civil War commentary -- really goes over the top.
WILLIAMS: Not only that, but it misstates the purpose of the Proclamation. Can you tell me one other presidential action -- one other document, one other statement from our American history -- that did as much as the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamations? I dare anyone -- Mr. Williams, Mr. DiLorenzo -- to point to one other document that freed four million slaves, or would eventually lead to their freedom. Now, this was an act of political courage.
As I indicated a few minutes ago, it had its political consequences and connotations. Almost everything we do in a democracy has political overtones. That doesn't necessarily make [a particular decision or policy] evil; it just shows that, as in ancient Athens, American democracy has true meaning. When two or more people get together to discuss an issue, it's a form of politics.
Lincoln certainly wanted the black manpower for the Union Army and Navy. We can't get probative evidence of more than 180,000 but I think, and Edna does too, that over 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army or Navy. What a relief this was to the conscription [burden] in the North. It also helped fill the ranks of those white Union soldiers and sailors who were casualties. General Grant supported the recruitment of "colored" troops (as they were called then): "For every one we gain, the South will lose one." So there's that practical consideration.
There is also the moral consideration -- who can say otherwise [about] this policy, by one lone man, without congressional authority, and with no sanction from the Supreme Court? It was followed closely by his endorsing the Thirteenth Amendment that would permanently remove the cancer of slavery from our country.
So I think [DiLorenzo and other debunkers] are all wet. Their arguments belie common sense, as well as rationality, and the very facts of the case. You've got a President taking the bull by the horns, and moving. To me, Frank, it's the greatest kind of political courage any leader can exercise. The sooner we recognize it, across the board, the better off we'll be, because we could use a lot more of that kind of political courage today.
GREGORSKY: Let's stick with that theme of small-d democratic political leadership. I'm a conservative, so I agree with our libertarian friends some of the time. But Libertarianism, when it gets to be an ideology, combines the heartlessness of the Right with the permissiveness of the Left. At the root of their agenda are theoretical constructs that appeal mainly to individuals in a gated community or who enjoy a secure academic niche. There is no awareness of what it takes to actually represent broad masses of people.
So my final line of inquiry goes way beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and DiLorenzo presuming to tell us about the "real" Lincoln. If you're going to appreciate Lincoln -- doesn't matter if you're a liberal like Harold [Holzer] or a conservative like me -- you need a certain appreciation for politics, pragmatism, and even the occasional "opportunistic" move, yes? Thomas Jefferson got elected on a limited-government platform -- but he expanded the size of the country by one-third [with the Louisiana Purchase] when it turned out a war-strapped Napoleon was desperate for cash. Would you agree that great governance is often about seizing opportunities that are outside of one's philosophical preferences?
WILLIAMS: Yes, and it's global, isn't it? Lincoln might have been worried about the intervention of France and England; certainly Russia came to the side of the Union because of the Czar's own "emancipation" of the serfs. But today the issues are not confined to the continental limits of the United States.
So I think this Libertarian idea of the perfectly rational world is, as you say, a gated community -- it's unrealistic, because of the unknowns, and that's why a leader with political courage takes risks. When Lincoln issued the Proclamation, he had a sense that he'd have enough support in the north. Many Union soldiers and sailors had joined the military not to emancipate the black person, but to bring about reunion. To feel confident enough that he could lead, and have [the mass of military servicemen] appreciate this act, takes great courage.
GREGORSKY: I concur! And would you agree with the premise that if anyone -- whether they're 18, 38 or 78 -- is going to appreciate Abraham Lincoln's genius and his humanity, they better not be ideological about their approach to human nature and governance?
WILLIAMS: I think that's right. It's matter of practical considerations and putting the issues in perspective.
GREGORSKY: Plus having some of your own philosophical roots to start with. I'm not talking about "amoral pragmatism" here, but rather speaking against a strict and doctrinaire ideology.
WILLIAMS: That kind of approach doesn't work in a democracy. They come and they go, don't they? Like the rain, and the snow.
In one of his debates with Douglas, Lincoln said "public sentiment is everything." He kept that in mind while working through the Emancipation Proclamation, conscription, the curtailment of civil liberties, the firing and hiring of generals. When we look back at him, we need to do so in the context of the times in which he lived.
© 2007, Frank J. Williams and Frank Gregorsky