Liars and Fools

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

I just noticed when I started this post that I routinely omit Douglas’ middle initial, A, but usually include Chase’s. I think that I’ve picked up the standard convention which, I presume, goes back to how the men tended to refer to themselves. I don’t think it makes much difference, but if anyone wondered I don’t really have a good reason for doing it how I do.

Anyway, neither Stephen Douglas (parts 12345) nor Salmon P. Chase (parts 1234567,89) shrank from playing fast and loose with the truth. Neither took pains to admit inconvenient facts unless they had to. Both treated their preferred interpretation of events, no matter how questionable, as a clear truth. We all do that often enough. I’ve spent some time picking apart both men for that sort of thing and will probably do more. But some historical lies come off worse than others. Chase could plausibly have claimed that some of his historical errors came from haste, not malice. Both men could sometimes claim legitimate, reasonable interpretations of past events. Sometimes, however, they very clearly and blatantly lied. They knew the clear truth but attempted to deliberately mislead others in the service of their political preferences.

Call me an idealist, but I think the latter kind of lie, however common, deeply undermines the whole principle of government by consent. If decision makers don’t tell us the truth, how can we make informed choices between them? I don’t know how to solve that problem, in 1854 or 2013.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas did that from start to finish with his line about how Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850. It did not. Probably nobody who voted for any compromise measure thought it had. David Rice Atchison did not think he repealed the law. Stephen Douglas did not think he had either. Douglas lied to give himself and his northern supporters political cover. Everyone in Congress knew it, but maybe the lie would blunt the backlash against him and let him change the subject to how his opponents wanted to destroy the sacred, final settlement on all matters pertaining to slavery. It would not fool everyone, but it might confuse the issue enough for voters paying less attention that they would not punish the Democracy as much as they otherwise might for so radical an act.

Chase did the same. Even granting him the most leeway we can because of his haste in revising the Appeal to get it into the papers, he told at least one remarkable whopper:

He [Douglas] says that we, forsooth, have held him up to the country in this address as guilty of certain great and enormous crimes. Why, sir, any man who reads the address will see that in no part of it, from first to last, except in a brief note appended, is the Senator mentioned at all. So far as I am responsible for the document, either by signature or authorship, I tell the Senator he was not at all in my thoughts. He exaggerates his importance when he supposes that we had him, rather than any other member of the committee, specially in view. Sir, I know the gigantic stature of the Senator; I know the weight and importance which he possesses in the country; I know that he has a great and powerful party surrounding him; and I know also the great disadvantages under which I enter into any controversy which he provokes. I am in a minority. I know that full well. It is no very pleasant position. But I dare do that which I should like to see the Senator also do. I dare adhere to principle, even though that adherence must carry me into a minority.

Yeah, right. Chase meant the Committee on Territories in general, not anybody in particular. He certainly didn’t mean its chairman, who dominated proceedings, who introduced the bill under discussion, who submitted all the revisions to it, and who concocted a convenient “clerical error” to hide a revision. This would fool no one in Congress, but could give Chase the same kind of plausible deniability with embattled supporters that Douglas wanted. It could let him separate admirers of Douglas from their man by divorcing Chase’s position from slighting the Little Giant. But no one, let alone an informed Senator privy to that body’s proceedings for years, could investigate Kansas-Nebraska and not once think of Douglas.

I don’t go for the idea that irresponsible, blundering politicians brought about the Civil War. I think those men, and the millions who supported them, knew full well what they meant and did. They may have underestimated opponents, but one need not be a reckless blunderer to do that. They went in with eyes open and embarked on logical courses of action, navigating the political waters as best they could. But an observer who did as Chase claimed he did and never thought of Douglas at all when contemplating the Little Giant’s signature issue for more than a decade? That counts as irresponsible and blundering in my book.

Whatever harm Chase or Douglas did with their respective lies, they did lie. They knew it. They did it deliberately. Kansas-Nebraska, like the Armistice, and all that followed came from them acting not as fools, but as deliberate and rational men trying to achieve their goals. We should call them liars when they lie, but we should think long and hard before we call them a bunch of dummies who knew not what they did. Part of the job of a good historian is trying to understand how they got there.

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