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Bar News - October 6, 2006

Court’s Corner Lincoln Scholar, Chief Justice Delivers King Lecture



        Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, a leading scholar on the nation’s 16th president, began and ended his recent talk, “An Evening with Abraham Lincoln,” comparing the controversial actions involving civil liberties taken by two wartime presidents, Lincoln and President George W. Bush.

 Justice Williams and Chief Justice Broderick
RI Supreme Court Justice Frank J. Williams, left, hoists an engraved crystal bowl (made by New Hampshire artisan Pepi Hermann) for the audience at the John W. King Memorial lecture to see. The gift was presented to him in appreciation by NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John T. Broderick, right.
Photo courtesy of Susan Noon, NH Bar Foundation.

        In a humor-laced, engaging style, Williams delivered the John W. King Memorial lecture on Sept. 14 at the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The event is hosted annually by the NH Supreme Court and funded by the NH Bar Foundation and is open to judges, lawyers, legislators and citizens from around the state.

        Williams likened some of Lincoln’s actions in defiance of other branches of government to keep the Union together and abolish slavery to what Bush has done in the war on terrorism.

        In some cases, he explained, Lincoln’s actions have held up to the scrutiny of time to make him revered as one of the nation’s greatest presidents, although he was highly unpopular at the time and ultimately assassinated. In other cases, he made decisions that had “disastrous” consequences. It is too early to tell whether or not the actions of Bush will be viewed as heroic or misguided, Williams said. “War and its effect on civil liberties remains a frightening unknown. The coming years will [reveal] who really has political courage and who really has resolve.”

        Williams defines “political courage” as having four tenets: clear, self-confident trust in one’s own judgment; knowledge of one’s own mind; obsession with character, selflessness and honor; and the state of being most alive in the midst of a fray.

        He discussed Lincoln’s declaration of war without the authorization of Congress; suspension of habeas corpus and use of military tribunals in trying enemy combatants and domestic terrorists; disregard of Supreme Court orders regarding the legality of slavery; overruling of generals’ recommendations regarding fighting the first Battle of Manassas; and use of a war measure to avoid legal challenge to the Emancipation Proclamation.

        “The Emancipation Proclamation is excellent law,” noted Williams. He added that some scholars criticize the document because it uses dispassionate legal language instead of the eloquent writing exhibited in many of Lincoln’s well-known speeches. Williams described Lincoln as both a “gifted writer” and a “legal genius.” He said that the proclamation was intentionally written not as a speech but as a mechanism to free slaves in a country where slave-holding was constitutional.

        Because Lincoln crafted the proclamation as a war measure, he was able to eventually free about three million slaves over the course of the war. The measure allowed the Union Army to free slaves in territory it occupied. Relying on existing laws — that slaves were the property of the slave holder, and that the army can take possession of property from the enemy — Union forces, as they advanced southward, seized slaves as the property of the US government, and then, as their owners, granted them their freedom.

        Williams’ most recent book, Judging Lincoln, is a collection of essays about Lincoln that he has written over the past 20 years. He was also co-author of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, written with Harold Holzer and Edna Greene Medford. He is currently working on an annotated bibliography of all the Lincoln titles published since 1865.

        The chief justice has one of the country’s most extensive collections of Lincoln artifacts, which he began acquiring at age 11. He was appointed by Congress to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission which will commemorate Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009. And, since 1996, he has served as founding chairman of The Lincoln Forum, a national assembly of amateur and professional Lincoln and Civil War historians. He also helped initiate the Lincoln Legal Papers Project, which focuses on Lincoln’s career as an attorney.

        The chief justice served for five years on the RI Supreme Court as an associate justice prior to his current appointment in 2001. A 1970 graduate of Boston University Law School, Williams served in Vietnam and is a US Army veteran. He is an adjunct professor at the US Naval War College and at Roger Williams University School of Law. In 2003, he was named by President George W. Bush to a military commissions review panel for tribunals involving detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


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