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Kamala Harris, Honest Abe and the Supreme Court

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Q: Was Sen. Kamala Harris’ story on the vice presidential debate about President Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 Supreme Court emptiness right?

A: There’s no proof that Lincoln mentioned he delayed the nomination to let voters select the following president, as Harris mentioned.  


Last evening within the VP debate Kamala Harris notes that Abraham Lincoln selected to delay nomination of a SCOTUS till after the election, as a result of it was the correct factor to do. Is this correct?


At the vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris invoked a little bit of Civil War-era historical past by providing the purported phrases of “Honest Abe” about filling a Supreme Court emptiness simply earlier than a presidential election. The story was meant to bolster Democrats’ argument that the present Supreme Court emptiness needs to be crammed by the winner of the 2020 election.

Many readers have requested us whether or not her story about President Abraham Lincoln holds up.

While Harris obtained the essential details in regards to the timing of the emptiness, she attributed an unsubstantiated quote to the 16th president and superior an unproven declare about his motivations.

Here’s what Harris mentioned:

Harris, Oct. 7: In 1864, one of many, I believe political heroes, definitely the President, I assume of you additionally, Mr. Vice President, is Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection and it was 27 days earlier than the election. And a seat grew to become open on the United States Supreme Court. Abraham Lincoln’s celebration was in cost, not solely of the White House, however the Senate. But Honest Abe mentioned it’s not the correct factor to do. The American folks should make the choice about who would be the subsequent president of the United States. And then that individual can choose who will serve for a lifetime on the very best court docket of our land.

It’s true {that a} Supreme Court emptiness occurred simply 27 days earlier than the 1864 election, when Chief Justice Robert B. Taney died on Oct. 12. Taney was identified for providing the choice within the 1857 Dred Scott case, which had declared that Black folks, slaves or free, weren’t U.S. residents.

And it’s true that, whereas Lincoln’s Republican celebration managed the Senate, he didn’t make a nomination till after he was reelected. Lincoln nominated Salmon Chase for chief justice in December 1864. Chase had served as Lincoln’s Treasury secretary and had vied for the Republican presidential nomination in opposition to Lincoln in 1860.

But Lincoln’s actual rationale for ready to appoint Chase till after the election isn’t clear — and there’s no report of him making a quote that squares with the one Harris described — in response to historians.

“Lincoln never actually explained the delay in his own words, so we don’t know his motivation,” Christian McWhirter, Lincoln Historian on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, instructed us in an electronic mail.

McWhirter continued: “History is, of course, all about interpretation, so historians have mostly relied on context to draw conclusions. The 1864 election is certainly important context, as is the fact that the Senate was out of session until December 5. Things like that can provide clues for what Lincoln might have been thinking, but ultimately we can never know exactly.”

Congress, as McWhirter famous, was not in session when the emptiness arose — which implies the Senate couldn’t have confirmed Lincoln’s choice till after the election, anyway. The Senate in the end confirmed Chase a day after returning (and the identical day Lincoln formally nominated him) on Dec. 6.

Historian Michael Burlingame in his e-book, “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” wrote that “upon hearing the news” of Taney’s loss of life “Lincoln said he would not nominate a replacement for Taney right away but would remain ‘shut pan’ for a while. Preoccupied with the election and his annual message, he postponed consideration of the matter until Congress met in December. In the meantime, he said that ‘he was waiting to receive expressions of public opinion from the Country.’” Burlingame, nonetheless, describes “such expressions” as letters about who to decide on — not the outcomes of the election.

In “Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration,” Lincoln’s Register of Treasury, Lucius E. Chittenden, wrote that Lincoln had mentioned earlier that 12 months — in June, when Chase stepped down from Treasury secretary — that, if given the chance, “I will make him Chief Justice of the United States.” (Taney had been sick for a while.) Chittenden additionally wrote that Lincoln “had never contemplated any other” individual for that emptiness.

The Trump marketing campaign rejected Harris’ declare, too, citing historian and novelist Shelby Foote’s suggestion that Lincoln delayed nominating with a political calculation in thoughts: to make sure Chase’s “fervent support” main as much as the election.

Likewise, the Washington Post wrote: “The overarching effect of the delay is that it held Lincoln’s broad but shaky coalition of conservative and radical Republicans together. And it kept rivals like Chase in line.”

McWhirter mentioned that whether or not such a political calculation was a think about “potentially delaying the nomination is … open to interpretation.”

Also, since Lincoln gained reelection, it’s unknown whether or not he would have nominated somebody after the election even when he had not crushed George McClellan.

“I don’t think we have a clear statement from Lincoln one way or the other” on that, McWhirter mentioned.

We fact-checked plenty of claims made in the course of the vice presidential debate. For extra, see “FactChecking the Vice Presidential Debate.”

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30th to 39th Congresses (1847–1867).” Office of the Historian, U.S. House. Accessed 9 Oct 2020.

Brockell, Gillian. “Kamala Harris’s ‘little history lesson’ about Lincoln’s Supreme Court vacancy wasn’t exactly true.” Washington Post. 8 Oct 2020.

Buchanan, Larry and Karen Yourish. “Ginsburg Supreme Court Vacancy Is the Second Closest to a U.S. Election Ever.” New York Times. 19 Sep 2020.

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln : A Life. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Chittenden, L.E. Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration. 1901.

Dates of Sessions of the Congress.” U.S. Senate. Accessed 9 Oct 2020.

Dred Scott v. Sandford: Primary Documents in American History.” Library of Congress. Updated 27 Aug 2020.

Kamala Harris & Mike Pence 2020 Vice Presidential Debate Transcript.” 7 Oct 2020.

McWhirter, Christian. Lincoln Historian, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Email to 9 Oct 2020.

Party Division.” U.S. Senate. Accessed 9 Oct 2020.

Salmon P. Chase.” Library of Congress. Accessed 9 Oct 2020.

Supreme Court Nominations (1789-Present).” U.S. Senate. 9 Oct 2020.

The Taney Court, 1836-1864.” Supreme Court Historical Society. Updated 30 Jun 2017.

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