Gingrich: The Great Emancipator From History?

Newt Gingrich this week unleashed a series of attacks on the judiciary, calling for abolishing judges, getting rid of lifetime tenure, and ignoring judicial rulings that he does not agree with. We discussed yesterday his suggestion that judges could be arrested by federal officers and forced to appear before Congress to answer for their unpopular decisions. However, last night on Hardball I took Gingrich to task for what I consider a misrepresentation of not just the law but history in his reference to Lincoln.

In support of his suggestion that he would simply ignore court decisions with which he disagreed, Gingrich cited Lincoln who, he noted, refused to comply with the Dred Scott decision. He stated:

“Lincoln repudiates the Dred Scott decision in his first inaugural address in 1861 and says, no nine people can make law in this country. That would be the end of our freedom. So I would suggest to you, actually as a historian, I may understand this better than lawyers.”

Lincoln did in fact disagree with the Dred Scott decision and did chastise the Court in his inaugural — not unlike Obama’s chastising of the Court in his State of the Union. However, Gingrich’s historical point is simply wrong and grotesquely misstates Lincoln’s position on Dred Scott.

First, let’s start with the inaugural speech. Gingrich started out well in that Dred Scott was referenced in the speech and denounced by Lincoln. However, Lincoln actually acknowledged the duty of the parties of the Court to comply with such decisions:

“I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be overruled and never become precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice.

Lincoln then added the following two lines:

At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty from which they may not shrink to decide cases properly brought before them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes.”

Lincoln does not say that he will refuse to comply with Dred Scott. He is denouncing the Court for usurping the power of the political branches — a common complaint in our history. In fact, Lincoln stresses “[n]or is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges.”

The inaugural address is best cited to show that the difficulty between Presidents and the Supreme Court goes back many decades. The citation of the Dred Scott conflict, however, to show that a president can “ignore” Supreme Court rulings is unfounded and wrong.

First, it was the 14th Amendment that undid Dred Scott with the “Citizenship Clause”:

Amendment XIV, Section 1, Clause 1:

“ All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

That occurred in 1868 — roughly three years after the death of Lincoln.

Second, the Emancipation Proclamation did not technically set aside Dred Scott. The decision denied citizenship rights to slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation did not grant the rights of citizenship to slaves and only affected slaves in the rebel states. It was an executive order carried in war against states that had removed themselves from the Union — the ultimate denial of the authority of not just the Supreme Court but the entire constitutional system. Notably, it did not even outlaw slavery but merely freed the slaves in those states in rebellion with the Union.

Third, Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was itself a curious ruling with debatable binding effect. The Court began its fractured decision by holding that it lacked jurisdiction because Scott had no standing. That should have been the end of the decision. Instead, the Court said that the underlying federal law was unconstitutional — a curious ruling given the fact that the Court said that it could not hear the case. Every justice then held forth with opinions. The justices did state that Congress could not prohibit slavery in federal territories and slave owners were entitled to due process. However, there was no due process accorded to slave owners who later broke from the Union and stood in open rebellion under the Emancipation Proclamation.

Fourth, Lincoln never refused to comply with the ruling — even the controversial aspect of striking down federal prohibitions on slavery in the territories. The ruling was actually handed down during the term of President James Buchanan — just two days into his term. We now know that Buchanan not only complied with the law but inappropriately pressured the Court to render it. Buchanan wrote to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron to push for a ruling before his inauguration to reduce tensions in the country and later pressured Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier to join the majority of Southerners in their ruling. The decision as fully enforced by the Executive Branch and Lincoln was not president at the time.

Finally, Lincoln actually honed his policy close to what he understood to be the line set by the Court. For example, he expressly countermanded the order of Union general John Frémont freeing slaves in Missouri and asked “Can it be pretended that it is any longer a government of Constitution and laws, wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?”

The point is simple: Gingrich is wrong on both the law and history. Ironically, Lincoln can be criticized (and I have criticized him) for ignoring the Constitution in suspending habeas corpus — though some still defend him. He also failed to fully comply, in my view, with the decision in Ex Parte Merryman, as have other presidents including Bush and Obama. However, this was not done with a claim of the right to ignore Supreme Court cases but under an interpretation of the precedent and inherent presidential power.

Gingrich has previously shown a certain artistic license in dealing with Court decisions. For example, in a reference to Cooper v. Aaron, he has written that in “1958 … the Warren court asserted by itself that the Supreme Court was supreme over the president and the Congress.” This point is further stated in his “white paper” given out to followers where he states:

In 1958, all nine sitting justices of the Supreme Court signed on to a judicial opinion in the case Cooper v. Aaron that asserted that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution was supreme in importance to the constitutional interpretation of the other two branches of government, and that this judicial supremacy, all nine justices asserted, is a “permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system.”

The Supreme Court assertions in Cooper v. Aaron are factually and historically false. Nevertheless, following Cooper v. Aaron, the executive and legislative branches have largely acted as if the Constitution empowered the Supreme Court with final decision making authority about the meaning of the Constitution. The executive and legislative branches have further behaved as if they have no choice but to give total deference to Supreme Court decisions, even if the executive and/or legislative branch believes the Supreme Court has seriously erred in its constitutional judgments.

Much of this passage seems to disagree as much with the holding in Marbury v. Madison, but the decision was actually directed at the states. The Court held that the states were bound by the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Gingrich’s assault on the foundations of an independent judiciary should be a sobering moment for every American — Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative. Our constitutional system represents a certain covenant of faith between citizens. What Gingrich reflects is a crisis of faith in one of the central defining aspects of this American experiment with free government. It is not his misuse of history but lack of faith in our system that is so unnerving.

49 thoughts on “Gingrich: The Great Emancipator From History?

  1. When I read this story elsewhere last evening my reaction was the same, a bit less organized and detailed as JT, of course. My thoughts went further in thinking that if Obama would accept Newt’s ideas about governing he could just dismiss the recent inaction by the House and institute an extension of the payroll tax holiday among other things. It does simplify things. Did not GWB make a comment about being a dictator?

  2. But Noot is a history professor! He wouldn’t blatantly misrepresent history in order to rouse the rabble for his own ends. Would he?

    Sadly the 27% will eat up his story and eventually it will become conventional wisdom. We slide into dictatorship on a thin film of lies and deceit lubricated with the spittle of morons.

  3. Anyone on the court have a bias….Nah….Certainly not the current one….nod….nod….wink….yawning….

  4. “…Lincoln never refused to comply with the ruling — even the controversial aspect of striking down federal prohibitions on slavery in the territories.”

    Incorrect. On June 19, 1862, Lincoln signed the law enacted by Congress abolishing slavery in all federal territories. It ignored the dicta (personal views of an individual Justice unnecessary to the ruling or holding of the decision) in Taney’s opinion denying an express enumerated power to Congress.

    Art IV, Clause 2: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.” This was an express grant of general police power, and had been used since 1787 to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territories.

    It was Taney’s fractured reasoning that this clause applied only to territories held by the United States in 1789. He clearly defied his oath to uphold the Constitution and substituted his own racist views for the express language of the Constitution. Lincoln, one of the finest constitutional lawyers ever to serve as President, fully refuted Taney in his Cooper Union Address in 1860. It propelled Lincoln into the White House.

  5. Lincoln acted constitutionally under the circumstances in suspending habeas corpus. Lincoln correctly noted that the Constitution does expressly permit the suspension of habeas corpus in cases of rebellion or invasion where the public safety may require it.

    There was in fact a rebellion and invasion, and the public safety did require suspension in the case of armed mobs and pro-confederate militia in Baltimore that could prevent Congress from assembling by destroying rail transportation. Taney would have allowed the mob to prevent Congress from assembling to vote on suspension of habeas corpus, but the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

    Lincoln correctly noted that the Constitution does not state whether the Congress or the President may authorize suspension. Taney ignored the language of the Constitution and inserted his own view that only Congress could authorize this. He implied if from the clause’s position in Art I, Section 9, purportedly limiting state powers, even though that very section contained a limitation on drawing money from the Treasury applicable only to the executive branch.

    Congress ratified all of Lincoln’s actions legislatively in 1861 and 1863,

    There was in fact a state of martial law in effect. Congress had authorized the calling out of the militia in two separate statutes, thus authorizing suspension of habeas corpus. Taney was without jurisdiction to issue his order in Merryman, and Lincoln acted constitutionally in war time.

  6. I became aware of Professor Turley and this site this week while watching C-Span and Hardball. Now I am spreading the word via Facebook and e-mail to pay attention to the professor’s blog. Thank you for your thoughts on Newt, in my opinion currently the most dangerous man in America, as far too many believe anything he says regarding history. This self-proclaimed “scholar” who professes to love the Constitution shows all signs of being more than willing to destroy it. I hope that the polls are correct, and that people are starting to become more aware that their potential emperor wears no clothes.

  7. JT, I appreciate you going over the history and the law but I must disagree with this statement: “…Our constitutional system represents a certain covenant of faith between citizens. What Gingrich reflects is a crisis of faith in one of the central defining aspects of this American experiment with free government. It is not his misuse of history but lack of faith in our system that is so unnerving.”

    Gingrich like every other member of the incompetentcenti doesn’t lack faith in our system. They are trying to dismantle it. Each person plays his or her assigned part in the kabuki theater. You give them credit for ideas they don’t hold.

    They want power. The Constitution, the rule of law is something which stands in the way of their power. They aren’t breaking faith with it, they are subverting it to gain power.

    Who is breaking faith with the Constitution? It is, we the people. We are allowing fear and propaganda to distort our thoughts and actions. People are, both left and right, supporting actions which destroy our own form of govt. That lack of faith is what each of us must restore in our own hearts and minds. We the people must reclaim courage and clear thought. Until we do, there is no chance of restoring those things that are best about our nation.

  8. Just happen to be watching Hardball ,when you and J.C Watts,who by the way supports Newt Gingrich and he was trying to justify Newts position by saying how judges appear on Cspan and other networks giving their views but he failed to mention that Newt would have them on the carpet brought there by armed guards.I think that’s a big difference.

    BTW,Professor seems like you have been working out.

  9. Newt is obviously going down in flames with his call to arrest judges.

    But it seems that it would be constitutional for Congress to enact a law abolishing a federal court. The Great Historian may be unaware of this.

    Lincoln and Congress abolished the court of a particularly pro-confederate judge in the District of Columbia who was rendering the draft inoperable with his rulings, thus threatening public safety and rebellion.

    President Wilson and Congress abolished the United States Commerce Court in 1913, after only three years of existence.

  10. Lawyer Historian:

    Thank you for your contributions. I find them spot on. Lincoln’s revocation of the Great Writ did open a Pandora’s Box about which branch of government had the authority to do such a deed. Congress’ ratification, ex post facto, seemed to resolve the matter.

  11. Thanks Mespo.

    The Act to abolish slavery in the territories was Ch. CXI, 12 Stat. 432, Approved June 19, 1862.

    Much of the express language of this Act was repeated in the Thirteenth Amendment.

  12. What I want to know is did setting things straight about Newt’s historical revisionism cause Chris Mathews to get a “thrill up his leg”? He should really see a doctor about that.

  13. “It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”

    This is the text from Roger Taney in the “Dredd Scott” case. It is a sad commentary on the thinking of Whites on the people of color in this world. It’s not that Taney was a bad man and he even showed some compassion as a Judge in some of his opinions. He was, however, a man of his time. Even abolitionists and Lincoln saw the Blacks as inferior culturally, though they were entitled not to be slaves. Humanity seems almost genetically pre-destined to see inferiority in the “Other”.

    A belief in Black cultural inferiority is still prevalent today, but thankfully less common. While Newt is a hypocritical con man, I have no doubt that he deeply believes in the inferiority of people of color. We must remember though that Newt is a sly man, who thinks he’s smart. The use of the Dredd Scott case misstating Lincoln’s position, to provide cover for his ill-considered argument was not an accident, but Newt thinking he was hoisting Liberals on their own petard.

  14. eniobob, Paul has claimed he does not get enough attention from the media, but the more that is revealed about him the worse he looks.

  15. The Court began its fractured decision by holding that it lacked jurisdiction because Scott had no standing. That should have been the end of the decision.
    Also true of Marbury v Madison.
    Marshall said the court did not have original jurisdiction in the matter.

  16. Jill,

    Beautifully spoken.

    “Who is breaking faith with the Constitution? It is, we the people. We are allowing fear and propaganda to distort our thoughts and actionno longer exists. I believe that we have beens. People are, both left and right, supporting actions which destroy our own form of govt. That lack of faith is what each of us must restore in our own hearts and minds. We the people must reclaim courage and clear thought.”

    You are exactly correct. They want to destroy the Constitution and we are failing to defend it. Bravo.

    i write about this every day and I try to write in such a way as to encouurage action. It often seems to me that I am one of a minority of people who see the Big Fascist Elephant in the room. Even those who describe themselves as Liberal don’t want to admit it. They want to deny the truth so plainly evident and cling to the notion of a two party adversarial system with Constituional protections that no longer exists.

    I believe we have been, being set up for this for a long time. That is why it seems so confusing to many. It is difficult for the average American to see what he deserately does not want to believe and these Thugs have given them/us so much show to distract and mislead them.

    Note: This is much the same method used to convince the Jews and other victims to go passively to the “Showers” in Nazi germany. Lot’s of yelling and confusion, a few smacks and blows to keep it up and keep them moving,lies about resettlement, work, and showers and the future awaits beyond those shower doors.
    Well perhaps the future waits beyond similar doors for the American people.

    It is not much of a jump between letting a sick person die for lack of health insurance; or sterilizing “undesireable” segments of society; to forced Euthenasia and genocide. i don’t remember where, specifically I heard this but it was reported that some of the “Conservatives” are exhibiting a renewed interest in Eugenics. Now there is a scary word.

  17. In case anyone is wondering:

    “Sarah Palin says she’s just not feeling enthusiasm yet for any GOP presidential candidate and isn’t ready to make an endorsement.”

  18. Blouise: Translated into ordinary English, that means no one has offered her enough money. She is holding out for the mother lode. That could backfire on her. Her endorsement has all the intrinsic value of the Ransom of Red Chief.

  19. I think J. C. Watts comment about the Republican Party” we don’t fall in love, we fall in line”, says more about what’s wrong with the Republican Party, and what a danger the Republican Party is to the nation.It seems to me that such a motto belonged more to the Communist Party’s way of thinking, I cannot imagine a man like Pres. Eisenhower would have thought of his party in that way.

  20. “I don’t think [Newt] is a saint. Neither do I think Mitt Romney or Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum or Rick Perry or any candidate that we have out there, that they’re a saint…” … Oh, there’s one more candidate… who am I forgetting…?

    ***RON PAUL 2012!!!***

  21. Isn’t Gingrich the guy who threw a divorce at his cancer ridden wife after cheating on her? I’ll probs vote for Obama if he gets the nomination.

  22. Blouise

    thanks for the link. looks like a good read

    newt is not the kind of person (loose translation) to let a few details like facts get in the way of what he wants to say.


    nobody gets out of life alive
    (not my words. i think i heard it in a movie)

  23. I am glad you are addressing this. I have skimmed Newt’s “treatise” on correcting the courts and am amazed at his ability to twist the historical record and documents to say the opposite of what is real and true. As a former college history/political science major it is truly appalling!:)

    Good to see that Newt’s poll numbers are dropping..maybe some people are using more brain cells:)

    All too many people are ignorant of their country’s history and political foundations and I try,i my small way, ti try to correct that …at Chytha’s Resonance

  24. I saw where Jesse LaGreca (aka Ministry of Truth) was quoted as saying that we are blessed to have idiots for enemies.

  25. Of course he’s good at it. He has had his whole career to train for this performance.

    No offence but it seems to me that that is exactly the problem. Everyone is surprized and amazed. Why is everyone so damned surprized? The signs have been right under your noses for years. I am not by any means the only one who has been predicting this for some years now.

    But no one wanted to hear.

    I sincerely hope someone is listening now

  26. I should edit that to say was surprised that he would so blatantly twist it 180 degrees, not that he would twist it…and that so may people would applaud it.
    Most of the field twist and misrepresent the facts,etc, but he has the chutzpa to go full out black-is-white, up-is-down denial. Kinda speaks to the dearth of decent candidates from the right. It just galls me to have someone so blatantly misuse source material…but, you’re right , I guess I shouldn’t be surprised…and he is showing himself to be one heck of an angry SOB…

  27. Please Google the name Josef Alstoetter and/or The Judges Trial.
    There you will learn the story of how the United States tried Alstoetter and numerous other persons for intentionally dismantelling the German judiciary so that they could directly persecute individuals. Gingrich would be prosecuted by the United States in 1946 had he been a German under the Nazi era and advocated the arrest of judges by the Capitol Police or the U.S. Marshals or his SS. See also Tryanny On Trial by Whitney Harris, who was one of the Nuremberg prosecutors.

  28. The information in this Blog is good for me. I was hit by a train in August 2001 and in a coma until this November. I can not believe all that transpired since this 9/11 date everyone speaks of. This Newt guy was not a Nazi back in 2001 and this plea to lock up the activist judges is the worst thing I have heard in the past 30 days. HotsieTotsi, I smell a Nazi.

  29. […] which held that runaway slaves were not citizens of the United States. As it turns out, though, Gingrich pretty much gets history wrong here. Law Professor Jonathan Turley cites a number of factors that Gingrich gets wrong here, all of which […]

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