Ep. 96: Seward’s “Little Bell”

Seward’s “little bell” made for the perfect legend, whether he said the famous phrase or not. 

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On the one hand, Seward’s “little bell” was a wonderful encapsulation of Republican excess and the wartime erosion of liberties which Democrats prided themselves on vigilantly protecting. On the other hand, it was a fabrication, an example of the Democrats’ own penchant for excess and the dramatization of their sufferings during Lincoln’s war—but even if Seward never actually said it, he well could have.

What was Seward’s “little bell”? How was Seward a poor Secretary of State? Why was Steward allowed to approve arbitrary arrests? What is the writ of habeas corpus? What did Fort Lafayette represent during the Civil War?

Related Content:

Mr. Seward’s Little Bell, written by Rick Beard

The Lincoln Administration and Arbitrary Arrests: A Reconsideration, written by Mark E. Neely, Jr.

Further Reading:

Lincoln the Colonizationist Part 1, with Phil Magness, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Everything Wrong with the Tyler Administration, written by Anthony Comegna

Was the Civil War a Libertarian Moment?, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Anthony Comegna: “My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen in Ohio. I can touch the bell again, and order the arrest of a citizen in New York. Can the Queen of England, in her dominions, do as much?” Supposedly, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward made this boast to British ambassador Lord Lyons early in the Civil War and it quickly became one of the most infamous quotes from the war years. But he probably never said it—or, at least, there is no evidence that he said it. In the first few decades after the war, when historians of all persuasions and politics began writing the first histories of it, Seward’s “Little Bell” made for the perfect legend. On the one hand, it was a wonderful encapsulation of Republican excess and the wartime erosion of liberties which Democrats prided themselves on vigilantly protecting. On the other hand, it was a fabrication, an example of the Democrats’ own penchant for excess and the dramatization of their sufferings during Lincoln’s war—but even if Seward never actually said it, he well could have. Seward is perhaps the most overlooked Secretary of State in American history, and he exercised more power than most presidents ever have. With lightning speed, Secretary Seward used the war to convert American government from a republic where even state officials were constrained by law into an arbitrary bureaucratic machine, what political scientists call the “Second State.”

Anthony Comegna: I imagine Seward was quite excited about the possibility of tracking down and jailing his political opponents. The urge had long been boiling in his blood. Believe it or not, we have another link to Rhode Island’s Dorr War here—At the time of Dorr’s military insurrection in 1842, Seward was the Whig governor of New York. When the Rhode Island Charter regime declared Thomas Dorr treasonous and Dorr fled, Rhode Island’s (other) Governor sent extradition requests to all nearby states, including Seward’s New York. As it happened, Dorr was in New York at the time—he was visiting Locofocos and other early libertarians in New York City, trying to raise money and regiments. Seward promised to comply with the extradition request, but Dorr and his supporters remained confident that the state lacked the physical power to capture him. Right or wrong, Seward missed his chance and Dorr moved on to friendlier states with Democratic governors that supported his cause. Fast forward almost two decades and Seward was the other main contender with Lincoln for the moderate slot at the 1860 Republican Convention. Rather than punish or ignore his main rival, Lincoln kept Seward close by, entrusting him with keeping up public support for the war and preventing border state secessions at all costs.

Anthony Comegna: The string of arbitrary arrests began on April 27, 1861 when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus on his own authority…which didn’t really exist. Congress has every so-called Constitutional right to suspend the writ, but the war had just broken out and Congress was out of session. Lincoln claimed his actions were legitimate because he did not surpass “the constitutional competency of Congress.” But dude!—you’re not the Congress! Above all else, Lincoln feared that more border states would secede: chief among them, Maryland, which geographically surrounded the national capitol. From April 1861 to February 1862, Seward’s State Department jailed 866 political prisoners using arbitrary powers of arrest—and officials actually used this wording. They did not shy away from recognizing these arrests for what they were. Here was another Dorr War turned hot, and the best way to discourage further resistance was to fill up the jails and put the screws to the prisoners. On February 15, 1862 the War Department took over from Seward and before the war ended the government racked up another 13,535 arbitrary arrests. Most of those arrested were sent to Fort Lafayette in New York harbor, which residents justifiably called “The American Bastille.”

Anthony Comegna: For the mainstream Republican press—and just as we saw in DeBow’s Review last week—wartime necessity quickly and cleanly outweighed time-honored rights and liberties like the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the writ of habeas corpus. In our first selection of articles (all of them this week from one of the country’s most important periodicals, Harper’s Weekly), our author argues that state censorship of the press was merely a “temporary inconvenience” brought on by the “unexampled rebellion” more than anything else. Not only did they say the censorship was necessary to prevent the Confederates and their Copperhead or antiwar allies from undermining the war effort, but they praise Lincoln as a brave man for having advanced such an important and unusual policy. His willingness to violate traditional American norms to fight the war as completely as possible made him all the greater and more magical a hero. Really, we should thank Lincoln for his wisdom and his prudent deployment of such immense power.

Speaker: Harper’s Weekly, May 17, 1862, “The Censorship of the Press”. A censorship of the press is one of the temporary inconveniences which the present unexampled rebellion has involved. At the outbreak of the war there were throughout the North journals conducted by unprincipled men which were prepared deliberately to afford aid and comfort to the enemy. Ever since then there have been journals which, without the excuse of rebel sympathies, have been willing to betray strategical secrets, in order to outstrip their rivals in the publication of military and naval intelligence. The only means of checking the one and the other was a press censorship, and it is to the credit of Mr. Lincoln that he did not hesitate to establish it.

We cheerfully bear testimony to the sagacity and forbearance which have been generally displayed by the Honorable Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and Colonel E. S. Sanford, Military Supervisor of Telegraphs, in the exercise of the abnormal powers with which they have been invested in regard to the press.

Speaker: It could not be expected that an exercise of power so foreign to our usages and our political system could be established without occasional errors and some injustice. It is often so difficult to draw the line between legitimate and contraband news that honest publishers were liable to contravene the rules of war unwittingly; while, on the other hand, the duties devolved upon the censor, in consequence of the immense number of journals published in the loyal States, and the keen appetite of the public for news, were so overwhelming that a zealous officer might readily make mistakes without rendering himself fairly liable to censure.

Anthony Comegna: Our second selection from Harper’s continues the theme by investing Lincoln with almost superhuman moral integrity. The article was written in the context of Republican factions trying to cobble together an acceptable plan for postwar Reconstruction. The plan on the table was the Wade-Davis Bill, authored by two radical Republican senators, passed by Congress in July 1864, and pocket vetoed by Lincoln, who wanted a more lenient plan in place. Wade and Davis would have required a majority in each southern state to swear an oath against the Confederate government before readmitting the state into the Union. Lincoln did not believe this threshold would be possible in most places and preferred his own Ten Percent Plan, which obviously pegged the number of oath-takers at only 10% of the voting population in 1860. Our article blasts the radicals for their failure to support the president and reiterated that Lincoln wields his immense powers purely in the interests of the people. And here we have our reference to Seward’s “Little Bell,” which the author assured us is rung for the cause of freedom, whether Copperheads and ex-Democrats could see it or not.

Speaker: Harper’s Weekly, August 20, 1864. “The Wade and Davis Manifest.” The insinuation of [Misters] Wade and Davis that the President refuses his assent to their bill from motives of personal ambition is entirely unworthy of them. It is part of the desperate struggle of those who are hostile to the Administration to represent him as destroying all our liberties, and mismanaging the war only to secure his own re-election. [Misters] Benjamin F. Wade and Henry Winter Davis condescend to pander to this effect. But against such assaults, whether proceeding from masked friend or open foe, the personal character of the President, as revealed in the fierce light of the war, must be his sufficient defense. From the day when covert rebellion lay in wait to assassinate him in Baltimore, through all the mad ribaldry of the rebel press down to the last malignant sneer of Copperhead Conservatism, the popular confidence in the unswerving fidelity and purity of purpose of the President has smiled the storm to sooth. We hear occasionally of Secretary Seward’s little bell, whose tinkle by the President’s permission sends any citizen unheard to a dungeon. But nobody knows, and nobody wishes to know more than the President and the Secretary that twenty million pairs of eyes watch that little bell, and its tinkle is effective only because the people who look with those eyes see that the bell is rung to save their liberties, not to secure their slavery. It is simply impossible to make the American people believe that the President is a wily despot or a political gambler. His views may be erroneous, his public policy is open to discussion, but that he loves the Union less, or is less faithful to the Constitution than the bitterest of his enemies, we are sure no loyal man honestly believes.

Anthony Comegna: Our next piece takes aim at the Copperheads or Peace Democrats like Ohio Representative Clement Vallandigham, who was infamously deported first to the Confederacy and then to Canada. The War Department arrested Vallandigham for the “implied” crime of discouraging enlistment and his constituents in Dayton responded by rioting and burning the local Republican Party newspaper office. Vallandigham ran for governor from Canada and though he lost, he was still considered a top contender to challenge Lincoln in 1864. Antiwar Democrats like Vallandigham or New York’s mayor and lifelong Locofoco Fernando Wood rose to the top of national opposition politics because they represented a massive chunk of northern society and opinion. Even so, the war split the northern Democratic Party to pieces, dividing up War Democrats from Peace Democrats while many ex-Democrats like William Cullen Bryant fell in with the Republicans. Our next article lumps all opponents of the war together with political prisoners in Fort Lafayette, saying very clearly that the war effort could not spare niceties for those who could not bring themselves to support their government during wartime. The administration used New York’s Fort Lafayette to house people who spoke out or wrote against the war, people who discouraged conscription duty, criticized the regime, and a whole lot of blockade runners. For critics, this was a political prison where the regime could dump its enemies for safe keeping. Our writer chastises their traitorous fellows, saying that after the war the people would remember who loved the Union and who aided the Confederates.

Speaker: Harper’s Weekly, June 13, 1863, “Would-Be Martyrs”. For our part, we think that Mr. Vallandigham is effectually extinguished. By whatever specious ingenuity he may have heretofore exculpated himself from charges of disloyalty, it is patent now that he is a welcome guest among the enemies of his country, and is taking their salt, and probably sharing their morsels. They may trust him hereafter; the North never can.

As to the smart talkers and writers who are dining at the Capitol or the White House by way of Fort Lafayette, we fear their ambition will be disappointed. The price of provisions is advancing daily, and the Government is already at expense enough for the support of troops, without undertaking to fatten traitors likewise. It would be no small gain to many of these New York and New Jersey patriots, who declaim against the destruction of our liberties, to get their board gratis this summer. But Mr. Lincoln can not afford such luxuries. The peace orators had far better give up the idea of getting free board and lodging, with eventual contingencies in the shape of a martyr’s reputation, and betake themselves to some honest trade.

Speaker: When the war is over, the public will probably be apt to scan rather closely the record which public men made for themselves while it was raging. At that time, protests against being classed as a some-time Copperhead will abound. The men who are now noisiest against the atrocious despotism of Lincoln will then call Heaven to witness that they were loyal supporters of the Government. For it will then be as odious to have been false to the country in her hour of greatest peril as it was eighty years ago to have joined the Tories in the Revolution. Already there are indications that public sentiment is being formed in this direction. Even among persons not over-friendly to the Government, “ticket-of-loave” men from Fort Lafayette are beginning to be shunned. Pretty soon the public will make no great distinction between a rascal who was sent to State’s Prison for burglary and a traitor who was sent to Fort Warren for treason. And the stigma will stick. Our children will be brought up in holy horror of traitors, and the time will come when innocent creatures, now unborn or mere infants, will be pursued through life with the bitter and unbearable taunt that, in the dark and dreary days of the Great Rebellion, their father was a Copperhead!

Anthony Comegna: The Republican press made a steady habit out of minimizing the problems with Fort Lafayette. We just heard some from Harper’s, but the New York Times was just as ugly. At the end of the war—no doubt hoping to mitigate the political costs of wartime erosion of liberties—the Times wrote that “Southern prisoners and northern delinquents shudder at the very suggestion of a week’s enjoyment of [Fort Lafayette’s] hospitality…The universal testimony of those who have been there is that for comfort, cleanliness, and systematic regularity, it is unsurpassed.” Well, if we are to believe the accounts of prisoners compiled by Democrats years later, of course the picture is very different, and gross in all the ways you might expect. Rats, bugs, awful food—that sort of thing. But I’m not trying to give a sensory history of Fort Lafayette here! The press’ coverage again reminds me a lot of the Dorr War. Much was made of the fact that these prisoners were not isolated from their families and that their situation could be made more comfortable if indeed people cared to help them while imprisoned. In fact, the whole setup greatly aided the government’s purposes: just like in the Dorr War, every time someone new was imprisoned they had to consider the costs to their family. Every time a wife or child visited, it added pressure to the situation, pushing the administration’s critics to just drop it already and return to normal life. The arbitrariness, the supposed laxity, the leniency and relative comfort—all functioned to discourage further attacks on the government and softly encourage editors and speakers to simply keep their peace. In other contexts, though, the only good agitator was a dead agitator. Harper’s did not even bother to distinguish between killing combatants on the battlefield and jailing domestic publishers—in such a crisis, both activities blended together in the same overall effort to diminish the Union’s ability to prosecute the  ar. If you could hang a Reb, you could just as well jail a Dem.

Speaker: Harper’s Weekly, April 16, 1864, “Old and New Copperheads”. If any man asks why the Government, in the midst of a civil war, does not silence such talk, the reply is very obvious: because it is quite strong enough to tolerate it. But its constitutional right and power to send Fernando Wood to Fort Lafayette and to suspend the Metropolitan Record are as indisputable as its right to kill a rebel upon the battlefield. They are not derived from the clause which declares that treason shall consist in levying war, but in that which empowers the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus when, in time of rebellion and invasion, the public safety requires it. In such instances as these, the and at this time, the Government rightly judges that the public safety does not require it. For the great mass of the American people feel toward such orators and newspapers as their fathers felt toward Bache’s Aurora, which said of General Washington, when he retired from the Presidency: “The man who is the source of the misfortunes of our country is this day reduced to a level with his fellow-citizens…The name of Washington from this day ceases to give currency to political iniquity and to legalize corruption.”

Speaker: What the slanderers of Washington said of him their descendants, the Copperheads, now say of the Government of which he was a chief founder. They are equally safe in public contempt. They and their falsehoods will be equally held in the undying scorn of the American people.

Anthony Comegna: Public safety, blah blah blah—anyone born in the last hundred fifty years or so has heard these excuses for violating liberty ad nauseum. Of course, the editors of Harper’s Weekly were not always so concerned about protecting public safety above all else. In fact, about a year before the Union instituted its own conscription policy, Harper’s took steady aim at the Confederates for early resorting to such tyrannical means of fighting the war. The Confederate government passed its Conscription Act on April 16, 1862, and it was the first of its kind in American history. Before this, the very idea of conscription conjured up the worst tyrannies of the old world and the highest patriotic sentiments for the protection of individual liberties. Now, the Confederate government asserted ownership of its white population to the same shocking degree that planters exercised power over their slaves. For our author, history offered no similar example of a people so thoroughly subjecting themselves to the state than what was now unfolding in the South.

Speaker: It must always be borne in mind by the candid observer that since history began there never was such a rebellion as the one we are now suppressing. The rebellion of Catilline, to which it has been compared, was only able to raise 5,000 men, and of these a large portion had no better arms than clubs. The famous rebellions which constitute so large a part of the history of Great Britain and France were trumpery little disturbances in comparison with the Southern insurrection. A faint resemblance may be traced between the present contest in this country and the religious wars in Europe; but the latter, it will be seen at once on examination, were very diminutive prototypes of the present struggle. In all the religious wars in England and France there was no more bloody contest than the Battle of Winchester, which the historian will class among the minor fights of the present war. History contains no example of 8 [million] people rebelling against 20 [million] of their countrymen, and bowing so completely to the lead of fanatic leaders as to submit to be forced by conscription into military service. There never was an instance before of a country raising a million of men to fight each other. Nor was there ever a war, before the present one, which inflicted such wholesale misery upon the country which first took up arms; which involved so fearful an injury to peaceful commerce; which developed so much treachery on the part of persons in public employ; which brought to light such diabolical treasons and such heartless perfidy. The honest historian will stand aghast when he discovers the progressive developments of the scheme of secession.

Speaker: These unparalleled facts will constitute the historical apology for the violations of law perpetrated by the authority of President Lincoln. They will be deemed as ample and sufficient excuse. Posterity will decide that if Abraham Lincoln had hesitated to assure the responsibility of suspending the act of habeas corpus, or of interfering with the dissemination of treason in northern newspapers, he would, under the circumstances, have proved as derelict as his imbecile predecessor James Buchanan.

Anthony Comegna: But, wouldn’t you know it, the Union passed its own Conscription Act (called the Enrollment Act) just less than a year later, March 3 1863. The Republican press—including Harper’s and the Times—immediately pivoted to defending the policy as an absolute necessity and a popular one at that. The Times slashed at Clement Vallandigham for calling people to resist Conscription with all their power and laughed at the southern presses who dreamed of a northern Revolution against Lincoln. For all their posturing to moral supremacy, in the end the northern nationalist press was little different from the southern nationalist press we heard last week. Both believed that the scope and magnitude of the crisis swept away old considerations of individual rights. When defeat weighed in on the scales, nothing could be allowed to prevent victory—the costs of losing were too vast. If either side gave way and limited their tyrannies, the battle would be lost at home as much as in the field, and if at once they loosened their grips on the people, the sections’ respective ruling classes would topple under the weight of their own sins. So they all doubled down on their commitments to the evolving cult of statism—a ruthlessly pragmatic devotion to slavery and patriarchy in the South, and an almost Pavlovian jump to the sound of Seward’s “Little Bell” from northerners. When these sentiments and practices combined in the postwar generation, we call the resultant brew “Progressivism,” and to counter the trend there arose a new brand of radicals—only this time, they started using the weird word “libertarian.”