First they came for Nathan Bedford Forrest….

I normally don’t do much on contemporary politics, but unfortunately political correctness is starting to have a real effect on public life and Civil War studies. The latest craze is what might be called the historical cleansing of America of all symbols which might offend the usual suspects. It started with Confederate monuments, but it hasn’t stopped there. The latest one is former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney. His statue stands outside the Maryland State House, and has been targeted for removal by the usual group of activists. Taney, however, was no Confederate, but remained loyal to the Union until his death in 1864. His crime was to have written the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which formally recognized slavery and denied that anyone of African ancestry was a “person” under the Constitution. Taney was one of the country’s top legal minds and thought this might settle the question, but instead it simply inflamed it. Only three years later, a group of Southern states seceded to form a nation of their own.

Taney personally had no brief for slavery and thought it a pernicious institution. A slave owner himself, he had unilaterally freed them and provided for the support of those too old to work. However, he strongly believed that under the Constitution this was a matter for the states and not the federal government. When the war began it was Taney who acted as the guardian of civil liberties against the encroachments of the Lincoln administration. However, was a sick man and unable to devote much time or energy to it (he died in 1864). I’ve always wondered what might have happened if he had been in better health. As it was, there were rumors (never substantiated) that Lincoln had gone so far as to prepare a secret warrant for his arrest.

Another non-Confederate to be recently targeted is Andrew Jackson, presumably because he was a slave owner and especially because of the Indian removals. However, these worthies should also remember that it was Jackson who forced South Carolina to back down during the 1832-33 Nullification Crisis. There are also rumblings about Thomas Jefferson.

The latest action against the Confederacy is brought to us by the City of Alexandria, VA, which wants to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway as well as to remove of the statue of a Confederate soldier there.

All this brings to mind the old and rather bitter joke current in the former Soviet Union—that everyone knew exactly what the future would be, because Comrades Marx and Lenin had laid it all out and it was a matter of historical inevitability that could not be changed. No, the problem was the past—that was what kept changing. Every few years the history books would be rewritten to accommodate the latest shift of the political winds, and individuals who had fallen out of favor were excised from the pages and airbrushed from photographs as if they had never existed. I never thought I’d see it here, but we certainly seem to be headed that way ourselves.

UPDATE: The latest target for removal is Christopher Columbus. Perhaps we should all go back to Europe. And of course there is that perennial favorite, Gone With the Wind, which I think would be done only over Ted Turner’s dead body.

As for Lincoln and Taney, if you’d like an unbiased look the two, the writing and impact of Dred Scott, and the habeas corpus cases, I recommend Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers. Lincoln pretty much invented “war powers” out of whole cloth—no other president had claimed such sweeping authority. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that gives the president the power to unilaterally suspend habeas corpus and arbitrarily arrest civilians.

I took a look at that a couple of years ago in relation to the president’s war powers and the laws of war, including the Lieber Code. Some of the measures Lincoln took or approved of were quite shocking.


8 responses to “First they came for Nathan Bedford Forrest….”

  1. Bob Ruth Avatar
    Bob Ruth

    Your defense of Taney is misplaced, to say the least. His over-reaching Dred Scott opinion has rightly gone down in U.S. history as one of the Supreme Court’s worst. Of course, it was roundly embraced by Southern slave masters who for generations raped, tortured and otherwise de-humanized millions of their fellow Americans.

    Taney’s outrageous opinions continued during the Civil War as he attempted to undermine the Lincoln administration’s efforts to reunite the country.

    On the larger question of Civil War memory: What other nation allows leaders who attempted to dismember its country to be honored with thousands of statues and other memorabilia? For too long, this country’s Civil War memory was dominated by Southern heritage correctness movies Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation. Only in recent decades have different – and far more accurate portrayals of the war and Reconstruction – emerged.

    Thank God the South lost. Too bad it cost at least 650,000 lives to end slavery and keep our great nation the United States of America.

    1. David Connon Avatar
      David Connon

      Hi, Bob Ruth. I appreciate your passionate critique. I’d like to build on what you stated about Chief Justice Taney’s activities during the Civil War. On at least one occasion, Taney ruled that President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was illegal. Lincoln seemingly claimed that he suspended the writ in order to preserve the country. Many Democrats at the time stated that only Congress had the right to suspend the writ. Essentially, they agreed with Taney. Why was Lincoln’s action significant? The writ of habeas corpus (along with the right to a jury trial) were first granted in the Magna Carta in 1215. These two rights became fundamental in the English-speaking world. It seems reasonable, not outrageous, for Taney to oppose Lincoln in suspending the writ of habeas corpus (without gaining the approval of Congress).

  2. Bob Ruth Avatar
    Bob Ruth


    As I’m sure you’re aware, Lincoln based his suspension of habeas corpus on his obligation as commander-in-chief. Lincoln argued that his war powers constitutionally gave him extraordinary authority to do so. For goodness sakes, we’re talking about a civil war here, not some peaceful sit-in protest.

    As I’m sure you’re also aware, Congress was not in session when the war broke out and Southern civilian sympathizers in Maryland were attempting to block Union troops from marching into Washington D.C. If they had been successful, Rebel troops could have occupied the nation’s capital in the early months of the war. Thus, Lincoln and his supporters ordered the jailing of some Maryland secessionists.

    As I’m sure you’re also aware, when Congress finally convened later in the year, it ratified Lincoln’s emergency measures. Suspension of the writ was later widened, with Congressional approval.

    As I’m sure you’re also aware, one of Taney’s the most outrageous Civil War opinions came in a legal dispute over the Union’s right to blockade Southern ports and seize Rebel ships on the open seas. Believe it or not, Taney was part of a minority opinion that contended the Union had no such right.

    David, do you also believe Taney’s opposition to the Union blockade was correct?

    Bottom Line: Taney was a Southern sympathizer who should have done the honest thing, like almost all of the congressmen from Southern states. He should have quit his federal job and moved to the South.

    But let’s move to the larger question of so-called “political correctness” that you mentioned in your original post.

    It is NOT political correctness – but historical fact – that Lee, Jackson and all of the South’s other leaders fought on behalf of a Confederate government that wanted to dismember the United States and continue – and expand – slavery. (It was in the Confederate Constitution.)

    Why do Lost Causers (I assume you’re one of them) find it so difficult to understand that many Americans find it offensive to erect statues and other memorabilia to honor leaders who fought for such deplorable causes?

    1. Phil Leigh Avatar

      According to Columbia University’s history Professor Eric Foner, Congress never retroactively approved Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus as Foner states in the link below.

  3. Bob Ruth Avatar
    Bob Ruth

    Oops. I got you and Fred mixed up in writing about political correctness posts. Sorry.

    But my other comments about Taney still stand. He is rightly considered by most historians as one of this nation’s worst chief justices.

    I too am a strong civil libertarian. I agree that habeas corpus is an important fundamental right. But Lincoln in the early months of the war faced innumerable emergencies and Congress was not in session to ratify his actions.

  4. Chris Grab Avatar
    Chris Grab

    What do we need to do to please and pacify the whinings of african americans over 150 yrs after the end of the Civil War. The removal of statues , memorials ,flags and church windows will not stop the complaining over unhealed wounds of slavery. This is the history of our great country and it is very important. No amount of removal of symbolism will end the crying. Do not give in ,keep the fight alive to keep our great monuments. Giving more will only cause more giving . It has been over a century and a half move on. Fly your Confederate flags proudly my people.

  5. Phil Leigh Avatar

    Well said, Fred. I reacted the same way to the recent Taney episode. In a similar vein I published the following at my website.

    According to a May 5, 2106 *Washington Post* article, Confederate monuments are a “problem” that needs to be fixed. Nonetheless, destroying Confederate monuments—or “reinterpreting” them with qualifying remarks cast in bronze—under the gun of political correctness is a bad idea for three reasons.

    First, the history of the South’s evolving society is more apparent by *adding* new shrines to honor more recent leaders than by destroying or “reinterpreting” old ones. Moreover, the region has independently demonstrated an inclination to do so without any moral instruction from *The Washington Post*. 

    There are, for example, memorials to Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Memphis, Montgomery, and Austin, as well as countless MLK-named roads and schools across the South. As pictured in the link below, statues to the nine black teenagers who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 were erected on the grounds of the Arkansas state capitol on the fiftieth anniversary in 2007. Yet the same grounds include two Confederate statues put up in 1905 and 1913, respectively: One for the ordinary Rebel soldier and one honoring the women of the Confederacy.

    Second, as Alexander Dumas put it, “The difference between patriotism and treason is a matter of dates.” Similarly, qualifications for political correctness fluctuate. Consider, for example, the possibility that future feminists might demand that monuments to Martin Luther King be destroyed because he was persistently unfaithful to his wife. Consider also that a future hypothetical misogynistic society might demand that Arkansas remove the statue to Confederate women, which it erected without any edification from the modern feminism.

    Third, condemning Confederate monuments because of the atavistic racial attitudes of the era among the people of that time begs the question of whether the policy should also apply to statues for Northern historical figures. Consider the Lincoln Memorial. A couple of months before he announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 Lincoln met at the White House with African-American leaders and urged that blacks leave the country. He even arranged congressional funding for their emigration.

    Addressing his guests Lincoln said: “You and we are of different races. We have existing between us broader differences than exist between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”

    *Adding* new monuments to more recent admired leaders while keeping the old ones in place provides a tangible record of how our society evolved. It will be lost by tearing down the old ones.

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