Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Book Review: Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney

The full title of this book, "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers", appears at first glance sufficiently comprehensive to cover the anticipated content of James F. Simon’s latest work. But soon after opening the cover, it became obvious that such assumptions would prove a pleasant underestimation of the book’s contents. What could have revealed itself as a rather dry treatise on the law and executive authority emerged as an engaging history of two men whose intertwined legacies and personal qualities helped to sharpen the emerging identity of our nation.

James F. Simon, author of six previous books, including "What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States", is the Martin Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at the New York Law School. Through his current work, Mr. Simon states that he wishes to quot;…trace the long, sometimes tortuous journeys that brought Lincoln and Taney to their final judgments, and actions, on the issues that threatened the survival of the United States." He does just that.

Simon guides you through the complex lives of these two iconic yet very real men, giving the reader a clear sense of how each shaped, and was shaped by, the crises tearing apart a young nation. Moving easily through each page, the corresponding decades of history, and the intricate array of national conflicts, you become sadly resolved to the inevitability of the looming war. But far from simply being swept along by this irresistible tide, Simon discusses how each man contributed to the swirling vortex of national debate and eventual conflict. The increasingly frictional blending of slavery, economics, political ideology, regional animosity, and mutual distrust merge caustically to drive the North and South, Democrats and Republicans, abolitionists and conservatives to a resolute volatility that would shatter the lives of hundreds of thousands and yet save millions.

The author’s treatment of Roger Taney’s extensive political life, including his service as Attorney General under President Andrew Jackson, lends a degree of understanding to the evolution of the complex perspectives of a man too frequently mentioned only during discussions of Dred Scott or the challenging Lincoln’s suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus. During the engaging depictions of both Lincoln’s younger days and his eventful political career, the reader hears of how the future president’s early triumphs and failures, his unfailing determination, and gregarious personality shaped who he could become and how he would approach pursuing and executing his duties in public office.

From the Fugitive Slave Law, the Amistad decision, the Missouri Compromise, the decisions of Chief Justice Marshall, the Merriman and Vallandigham decisions, among others, Simon discusses how these legal opinions shaped, crystallized, and then polarized the sentiments of the nation. They irrefutably set the stage for the escalation of hostilities ranging from interpersonal disagreements to the eventual collision of armies.

Despite the wealth of intriguing biographical information, this is not simply a dual biography. For example, although he takes the time to mention details of Chief Justice Taney’s death, he does not pursue the familiar story of Lincoln’s. That is not the point of this book. Simon instead focuses on the journey taken by these two men and the nation they spent their lives serving and how each interacted dynamically to change the other.

On the back cover of "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney", one finds a sadly relevant statement which further emphasizes the significance of this book. The few lines read, "The United States suffers an unexpected attack. The president deploys the armed forces and assumes extraordinary powers that go well beyond the Constitution. Hundreds of persons suspected of aiding the enemy are arrested and held without charge. James F. Simon discusses these tensions between the president and the Supreme Court, created not by 9/11, but those between President Abraham Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney during the Civil War. This well-written and engaging narrative is a primer for today's challenge of balancing national security and civil liberties." While avoiding indulging in minutia, James Simon successfully documents many of the significant crises of the mid 19th Century and succeeds admirably in clarifying how Abraham Lincoln and Roger B. Taney responded to "the issues that threatened the survival of the United States."



Please visit my primary site at www.brotherswar.com

All original material Copyright © 2006. All Rights Reserved

Personal note: In the interest of fair disclosure, I should add that I received a copy of this book specifically for review. As a condition for agreeing to write a review however, I had stated that, if in my judgment I found this book unjustly biased or lacking the appropriate degree of scholarship, I would not write a negative review but would simply remain silent. The presence of the above is my acknowledgment that I both enjoyed the book and found it a worthy introduction to the topics discussed.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy this site, keep up the good work.

Randy said...

Thank you Alex. I appreciate that very much.

That's a beautiful picture in your profile, by the way. And if I read your profile correctly, I wish you the best of luck in the National Guard.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Tomorrow is supposed to be a beautiful day down there in Gettysburg, so I talked my friend into going down to the battlefields. It's been a few months since I've been and it will be the last time I get a chance before I ship out for training. By the way, just for sake of sharing a few Civil War facts... my great great great grandfather was Urban Woodbury, who at Manassas became the first Vermonter to lose his arm, and then served two terms as governor of Vermont. Also, I've come into possession of a book written by a professor at then Pennsylvania College during the battle. It's called "Notes on the Rebel Invasion of Maryland & Pennsylvania and the Battle of Gettysburg." by Rev. Dr. M. Jacobs. It is an orginal print from 1864 and has it in the personal notes of what appears to be "Lt. P.W. Free of the 148th PA Volunteers" who apparently actually fought at the battle itself. I think it's pretty interesting and since I don't know very many other people who care, I thought I'd share that.

Randy said...

Hi Alex,

Good to hear from you again. Very interesting about your Great-G-G-Grandfather. You must be proud of your family's heritage.

And the book sounds absolutely fascinating. If it's an original, then you have something very special, a unique piece of history. For what's it's worth, I'll bet there are countless people who would love to see the transcription. it's so rare to find anything new about Gettysburg. You may have just that.

Most importantly, I wish you well as you go on to training. Thank you for the service you will be doing for our country.