Monday, February 11, 2008

These are Perilous Times indeed.

It has been said that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. There is no doubt that this is true. And for libertarians, the study of history is a necessity. If you understand the past you can understand where present-day trends are leading. Perhaps one reason that history has been downplayed in the schools is the trends today are frightening.

Only by knowing the past can we know how much our nation has changed and how many liberties have been confiscated. So history provides us with a market to understand how much we have lost and as warning as to how much more we may lose as government power continues to expand unabated. For these reasons I’ve always had a passion for history.

And that is why I picked up Perilous Times, by Geoffrey Stone, and started reading. And what I read impressed me. Stone has written an important book on the fate of civil liberties when war passions are riding high. Randolph Bourne wrote that “war is the health of the state.” He wrote that war “sets in motion throughout society these irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”

War has always been the enemy of freedom. Even in those cases where it has been necessary it has cannabalized liberty. And freedoms lost in the hysteria of war are never returned to the same state they were before the war. They are always weaker. The libertarian journalist, Felix Morley, wrote that “the strength by a victorious State through war is in large part taken not from the enemy but from its own people.”

But all this is theory. What Stone offers is the evidence to validate the theory. Throughout American history war has always lead to atrocities -- not on the battlefields alone -- but at home as well. It has slaughtered free speech, executed liberty, stolen private property and committed murder. Each war panic has lead to real assaults on real people. War abroad leads to murder at home more often than people realize. To dissent against the war and the expansion of state power turns the war party into zealots out to punish and inflict harm on the dissenters. And Stone chronicles the history of the great wars and how each war brought with it intolerance and crimes against freedom at home.

The story of Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio alone is worth the price of the book. Vallandigham was a fierce Jeffersonian advocate of small, constitution government and a critic of Lincoln’s war. The Republicans conspired to gerrymander him out of his seat. But Vallandigham was a popular speaker and when crowds came to hear him denounce Lincoln’s many violations of Constitutional freedom he was marked.

In the dead of night the U.S. military raided Vallandigham’s home and arrested him. He was put before a military tribunal and found guilty of treason. His popularity made it impossible to execute him so the military imprisoned him. Newspapers across the country spoke out in protest and one by one they too were raided and shut down. As the storm over this assault on free speech continued Lincoln justified the imprisonment. The Democrats in Ohio decided to run Vallandigham for Governor even though he was in prison.

Lincoln responded by saying he would pardon Vallandigham but deport him from the United States into the Confederacy, a place where the congressman was not particularly wanted either. So after an illegal arrest and imprisonment, the “Great Emancipator” then had a vocal opponent thrown out of his own country. Vallandigham eventually made his way to Canada and then back to the North but was under surveillance on a regular basis. His ability to campaign was destroyed and he never regained office.

We can fast forward to World War I and read about the thousands of people imprisoned for opposing the war and the thousands of immigrants who were deported for the same reason. We can read of the movie producer who was sentenced to 10 years in prison because his historically accurate film on the American Revolution portrayed the British in a bad light. Since the British were American allies at the time this was consider seditious, accurate or not.

Stone’s book covers the history of war and civil liberties from the early days of the Republic to through the Civil War, both world wars, the cold war era, Vietnam and into the latest assault on Constitutional liberty under the guise of the “war on terror”. Terror may be the enemy but liberty seems to be the target. Perilous Times is a must read for anyone committed to freedom during these dark days. Those who do not understand history are truly condemned to repeat it.

Hardback, 728 pages, list price $35.00. But Laissez Faire Books has the book for $18.95. Free with each order of Perilous Times there is a copy of “Foreign Policy and the American Mind” by Robert Nisbet. To order call 1-800-326-0996 or e-mail You can also sign up for their free newsletter at their blog:

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