If Abraham Lincoln were president today, CBS and the New York Times might be boarded up, with Michael Moore, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and even John Kerry rotting in jail. I’m not saying that would be a good thing. The point is simply that the line between treason and free speech in America has moved a considerable distance in the last 142 years.
In 1862, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on his own authority as a way of dealing with the Peace Democrats, better known as copperheads. The copperheads were advocating letting the Confederacy go its own way, rather than going to war. They actively interfered with enlistments in the Union army. Many copperheads were congressmen and other elected officials. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton decreed that anyone “engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States” was subject to arrest and trial “before a military commission.” Some 13,000 people were arrested and held without charges as a result of Lincoln and Stanton’s edicts, and they were prosecuted by military tribunals instead of civil courts. Historians generally view this as something of a blot on Lincoln’s otherwise exemplary record, and that may be so. On the other hand, had the Peace Democrats prevailed, there would have been no end to slavery — and no United States of America.
Today we see political leaders and activists speaking out against the war in Iraq and even, though you don’t hear it much anymore, against the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some, like Michael Moore and Tom Hayden, openly advocate American defeat in Iraq — rhetoric that goes far beyond anything Lincoln saw. Others, including Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, rail against the war, the President, the Secretary of Defense, and others with over-the-top hyperbole similar to what Lincoln saw. But they do not advocate American defeat.