America's Disgraceful History Of Military "Trials"
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
The latest assault on the civil liberties of the American people in the name
of fighting terrorism is President Bush's recent decision to use U.S.
military tribunals to try foreigners accused of terrorist attacks and to
decide on sentences, including the death penalty. This is a horrible idea
with a horrible precedent: the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
In 1851 the Santee Sioux Indians in Minnesota sold twenty-four million acres
of land to the federal government for $1.4 million. By August of 1862
thousands of white settlers continued to pour into the Indian lands even
though none of the money had been paid to the Santee Sioux. There was a crop
failure that year, and the Indians were starving. The Lincoln administration
refused to pay them the money they were owed, breaking yet another Indian
treaty, and the starving Sioux revolted.
A short "war" ensued, with Lincoln putting one of his favorite generals,
General John Pope, in charge of federal forces in Minnesota. Pope announced
that "It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux . . . . They are to
be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom
treaties or compromise can be made." (Similar statements were being made at
the time by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who said that to all Southern
secessionists, "why, death is mercy").
The Santee Sioux were overwhelmed by the federal army by October of 1862, at
which time General Pope held hundreds of Indian men, women, and children who
were considered to be prisoners of war. The men were all herded into forts
where military "trials" were held, each of which lasted about ten minutes
according to David A. Nichols in _Lincoln and the Indians_. They were all
found guilty of murder and sentenced to death even though the lack of hard
evidence was manifest and they were not given any semblance of a proper
defense. Most were condemned to death by virtue of the fact that they were
merely present during a battle, during a declared (by the Indians) war.
Minnesota political authorities wanted the federal army to immediately
execute all 303 of the condemned men. Lincoln, however, was concerned that
such a mass execution of so many men who had so obviously been railroaded
would be looked upon in a bad light by the European powers who, at the time,
were threatening to support the Confederate cause in the War for Southern
Independence. His compromise was to pare the list of condemned down to 39,
with a promise to the Minnesota political establishment that the federal
army would eventually kill or remove every last Indian from the state. As a
sweetener to the deal Lincoln also offered Minnesota $2 million in federal
On December 26, 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in
American history in which the guilt of the executed could not be positively
determined beyond reasonable doubt. (The cartel of "Lincoln scholars"
actually praises Lincoln for this act, claiming that it is yet another
example of his humanitarianism and his "culture of life." He may well have
killed 39 innocent people, they say, but it could have been much worse).
This is not to suggest that the Bush administration, with its decision to
use military tribunals instead of civil courts to try suspected terrorists,
will exercise the kind of tyrannical behavior that occurred during the
Lincoln administration, but it could. Military men who are influenced by
the passions of war are not suitable as unbiased judges. The administration
should use the current crisis as an opportunity to speed up our sclerotic
legal system and prosecute accused terrorists under the normal rules of
trials that are consistent with the U.S. Constitution.
November 15, 2001
Thomas J. DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.
His book, _The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and
an Unnecessary War_, will be published in February.
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