Monday, November 27, 2006

Simon: "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney"

John F. Simon's Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers is a narrative history that traces the political development of Abraham Lincoln and the legal career of Roger Taney in the context of the pressing issues of the day. In my mind, although Simon largely overcomes them, several factors seem to conspire together to increase a prospective author's difficulties in crafting this story into something compelling to a popular audience. To begin with, it is a battle of extreme unequals in terms of public memory. We have one of the most revered American presidents pitted against of one of American history's "villains", the author of the Dred Scott case's majority opinion. More than a generation apart in age and nothing much in common, there seems to have been little if any personal interaction between the two. We have no great body of personal correspondence to draw from and the only face to face meeting mentioned in the text of this book is the administration of the oath of office. Lincoln's background is well known, but Taney's long and distinguished legal career is often casually reduced to his dreadful Dred Scott ruling. While acknowledging the great harm done to the country by Dred Scott and the poor legal reasoning behind it, Simon avoids this kind of career reductionism and his lengthy and thoughtful discussion of Taney's contributions to the country's jurisprudence is perhaps his book's most original aspect.

While the legal conflicts over secession and presidential war powers do not come up until well into the book's second half, Simon does use this dwindling space to provide useful summaries of the major wartime cases to come before the Supreme Court--including Merryman, the Prize Cases, and the Vallandigham affair. In his analysis, the author is consistently fair-minded toward both of his main subjects and uses his extensive legal background to outline clearly the arguments for and against. It is readily apparent that Simon is a fervent admirer of Lincoln. Although he doesn't shy away from concerns about the president's actions (or lack of action), he consistently steps away from anything approaching serious condemnation.

I did have a few problems with the book. The unorthodox citation method employed in Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney is the same one I objected to in an earlier post (here). Also, the background material related to the progress of the war itself has many factual errors and often relies on rather outdated assessments of events. As an example, it states on page 254 that "A third of Lee's army was killed at Gettysburg, virtually eliminating any chance that the Confederacy could win the war" and "one-fourth of all Union forces lay dead on the battlefield". Sure, these things are far from the book's main focus, but they're distracting errors nonetheless.

In the end, although a broad spectrum of readers will likely find it of interest, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney appears to be directed largely toward a general audience. Beyond the author's own insights and his informative legal biography of Justice Taney, much of what is discussed in Simon's book can be found in detailed form elsewhere in the literature. Therefore, I believe this volume's lasting usefulness will be as a balanced introductory volume to the great legal disputes of the antebellum and Civil War years.

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