Pendhamma Sindhusen is an independent political columnist and analyst.
On Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris squared off in the first and only vice presidential debate of this election season. Among everything the debate featured, including the already memed fly-on-Mike-Pence's-head moment, was a claim by Harris that President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 declined to fill a Supreme Court seat left vacant less than a month before the presidential election because he was compelled "the American people deserve to make the decision about who will be the next president of the United States” and “select who will serve on the highest court of the land". That claim, a "little history lesson" of the California senator in an attempt to substantiate her conviction that the Senate should not confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett until after the election and to counter-lecture her opponent who had legitimately cited all 29 precedents in history where presidents made SCOTUS appointments in presidential election years, is false nevertheless. Although Lincoln did indeed refuse to bring forward his nominee before the 1864 election, his primary motivation to do so was not about deferring to the American people's decision at the ballots.
In October 1864, amidst the fury of a civil war and a discordant political ambiance, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney passed away, leaving behind a vacancy on the highest court in the land. While there was a Republican majority in the Senate and Lincoln could have wielded his presidential power perfectly and unambiguously vested in the Constitution to name a replacement and had him confirmed at ease, that replacement was not named or confirmed until December 6, some 28 days after Lincoln's re-election. Now, there are 2 questions prerequisite in considering Harris's spurious claim. Why did Lincoln wait until that day to put forth his nominee, and would the Senate have confirmed the nominee had he done so earlier?
The answer to the latter is plain and simple: no. The Senate had already gaveled out into recess on July 4 and would reconvene as much later as December 5. Whether its members approved of Lincoln's nominee or not, it could not have sent the nominee to the bench before the election. To answer the former, however, is tricky and requires historical knowledge of Lincoln’s perspicacity and a wider political context of 1864.
The early 1860s was a tempestuous period in the United States. An intense debate over slavery and the entailed Civil War had split the nascent Republican party into fractions, one of which was the so-called “Radical Republicans”. These Republicans radically advocated for the abolition of slavery and reviled the rebellious, slave-holding Southern states in contrast to Lincoln who, while evidently averse to slavery, was more compromise-minded. Lincoln and these Republicans constantly sparred with each other, but in a deeply divided and precarious political environment of 1864, he needed their endorsement for his re-election bid. One notable figure among them was Salmon P. Chase who had previously campaigned against Lincoln’s renomination on the grounds of his putative electoral unviability.
By the time a Supreme Court vacancy emerged, Chase had already resigned from Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of Treasury after having thrice offered his resignation and gotten rejected by an astute Lincoln in preemptions against a possible coup in the GOP. Given that, Honest Abe, astute as always, discerned a lucrative opportunity for his career. A prospective Chase appointment would appease Radical Republicans who had become constitutive of the coalition he was trying to appeal to for his re-election. But by plausibly estranging some on his side who disapproved of the former treasury secretary, a prompt Chase nomination less than a month before the election could also be a double-edged sword with a potential of derailing his political career and the blueprint he had formulated of the country’s path forward. To make a move now would be a grave political blunder, and so Lincoln shrewdly decided to stand down and wait.
As he waited, he also tacitly signaled to Radical Republicans his intention to make Chase chief justice. Chase graciously accepted that gesture and swiftly started stumping for Lincoln in the Midwest, garnering his Radical Republican disciples to the Lincoln corner. Consequently, Lincoln won re-election and quickly nominated Chase for confirmation a day after the Senate reconvened. Chase was confirmed on the same day, becoming the nation’s 6th chief justice.
Any fair-minded person would agree that the essence of Lincoln’s delay in designating a SCOTUS replacement has much less to do with a noble feeling that the American people deserved to determine who would have the chance to do so that Harris confidently spoke of, but much more to do with a wise and careful political calculation that ultimately accrued to his electoral interest. Besides, there is no record whatsoever that Lincoln bore such a feeling or at least regarded it seriously. It is patent that, as with many other instances throughout history, even in presidential election years, presidents traditionally never refrained from nominating a SCOTUS justice, when given an opportunity, out of a desire to let the people decide. For Harris to claim otherwise as she did on Wednesday is either dishonest or ignorant.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Pendhamma Sindhusen
Sharlee on October 15, 2020:
"For Harris to claim otherwise as she did on Wednesday is either dishonest or ignorant." Just my view ---- Harris's took a stance on a subject that some aid came up with. The aid did little research on the subject. However, Harris ran with it. She often makes statements that are just plain wrong. She speaks to whoever is in front of her,
and dishes up what they hope for her. She is a politician,
but a poor one. That is well proven by her disastrous campaign in the primary. She shows a real lack of intelligence in my view, due to the fact she does not really have the fortitude to provide solid beliefs and stick with them.