Sunday, March 3, 2013

Abraham Lincoln: Champion of the Wrongly Accused

Professor Paul Finkelman of Albany Law School has written an enlightening law review article about what President Abraham Lincoln did when 303 men who were members of the Dakota nation were sentenced to die for atrocities committed against white settlers. Much to the chagrin of even Lincoln's political allies, Lincoln decided that he and his staff were going to review each of the convictions. Lincoln found that, among other things, claims of mass rape were vastly overstated and mostly false. Ultimately, Lincoln reprieved 265 of the 303 men convicted; only thirty-eight were hanged. That is, seven out of every eight who were condemned were reprieved. It was the largest mass clemency of people sentenced to death in American history. Here is an excerpt:
In . . . 1862, Minnesota was the scene of the most violent and bloody conflict between Indians and white settlers since the colonial period. As many as 600 or more white settlers (some contemporary estimates put it at 1000), a few hundred soldiers, and somewhere between 100 (or less) and 300 Indians - almost all members of the Dakota Nation (called Sioux at the time) - died in this conflict. At the time political and military leaders in Minnesota asserted that at least 1000 whites died. While this number may be an exaggeration, the fact that most white leaders believed the death toll was this high raised emotions and increased demands for executions of the Dakota. . . . .
Following the restoration of peace, General Henry Hastings Sibley appointed a military commission, which tried 393 Indians for "crimes" connected to the conflict. The trials began on September 28, and by November 5 the military commission had convicted 323 of the men who were tried. The commission sentenced 303 men to death . . . . On November 8, Major General John Pope, Commanding General of the Department of the Northwest, forwarded the list of those sentenced to death to [President Abraham] Lincoln. 
Much to the shock of the military and civilian leaders in Minnesota, the President did not rubber-stamp these convictions and sentences. Instead, on November 10, Lincoln asked General Pope to "please forward as soon as possible the full and complete record of their convictions." . . . .
. . . . 
Lincoln also had strong political reasons for supporting the executions. Just as the trials of the Dakota were winding down, Lincoln and his party had been badly bruised in the 1862 midterm elections, losing twenty-two House seats, and holding control of the House of Representatives only with the help of a block of war Democrats who called themselves Unionists. The Republicans lost control of state legislatures in Illinois and Indiana and the New York governorship. This backlash was caused by war weariness and the general weakness of the Union war effort in the East. Opposition to Lincoln's plans for emancipation, announced in late September, hurt the Republicans in some places, especially in the lower Midwest and among Irish immigrants in New York City. Under these circumstances Lincoln could hardly afford to risk alienating voters in Minnesota, who at this time were overwhelmingly Republican. In Minnesota, there was enormous popular support for executing all of the convicted Indians. In the calculus of good and evil, suffering and redemption, Lincoln might have easily concluded that the lives of a few hundred Indians - all of whom appeared to have made war on settlers - was a small cost to shore up support for saving the nation and reshaping the ongoing national conflict into a war for freedom and emancipation. 
Yet, despite these obvious reasons for simply allowing the executions to go forward, Lincoln did not do so. Instead, he and his staff reviewed all the convictions. In the process he concluded that many of the charges against the Dakota were exaggerated or bogus. As one historian has noted, "early accounts of the uprising seized upon the occasional instances of torture and mutilation, exaggerated them, and conjured up a picture of wholesale atrocities unparalleled in the history of Indian warfare." A letter from Minnesota Senator Morton S. Wilkinson and the state's two Congressmen detailed "fiendish brutality," murders in "cold blood," and gang rapes. All three were Republicans and Wilkinson was an ally of Lincoln. This somewhat hysterical letter was full of allegations that Lincoln politely described as "statements of fact not found in the records of the trials." Indeed, as the historian Roy Meyer notes, "Like Falstaff's story of the men he battled ... the closer these stories are scrutinized, the less foundation there seems to be for them." Similarly, General Pope had told Lincoln, although he knew better, that all of the men sentenced to death had murdered civilians and ravished women and girls "in more or less degree." After his examination of the record, Lincoln discovered that the persistent assertions throughout the conflict and its aftermath of rapes and the slaughtering of women, children, and captives were vastly overstated and mostly false. Lincoln concluded that only two of the condemned men had actually raped anyone, although a number of other convicted men had killed civilians, including women and children. In the end, Lincoln refused to authorize the executions of 265 of the 303 men sentenced to die, effectively pardoning them.

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P. Finkelman, U.S.-Dakota War of 1862: "I COULD NOT AFFORD TO HANG MEN FOR VOTES."  LINCOLN THE LAWYER, HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS, AND THE DAKOTA PARDONS, 39 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. 405, 406-13 (2013) (emphasis added).