You may recall that last week we did an Author’s Corner interview with Gustav Niebuhr, author of Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors.
Over at Newsweek’s On Faith blog, Niebuhr tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln and an Episcopalian bishop named Henry Whipple responded to the 1862 execution of Dakota Indians in December 1862. Here is a taste to whet your appetite:
Death row in Arkansas holds 38 inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that keeps track of such facts. Now, what if that state were to execute them all at the same time? By hanging — and did so publicly?
An unhappy precedent exists for just such an action — 38 hanged at one time and place. It took place a century and a half ago, on a single gallows built for that purpose in a small Minnesota city called Mankato. Every one of the condemned was a Dakota Indian; the federal government hired the hangmen. Hundreds of people turned out to watch.
The biggest execution on American soil, it could nonetheless have been much, much larger (and therefore that much more shameful) but for the involvement of two men. One everyone has known of since childhood: Abraham Lincoln. The other, these days, is far less recognized: Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Together, they offer an enduring lesson in reason and mercy in the face of great anger and violence.
The mass hanging directly followed the Dakota War, a fierce, five-week-long conflict that swept southern Minnesota in August and September, 1862, when some Dakotas — who had sold off their vast domain to the federal government and felt badly cheated of their compensation — turned violently against a growing population of white settlers. Hundreds died.
How many Indians would be executed as a result lay ultimately with Lincoln. He and Whipple had a crucial conversation about federal Indian policy first.
Here’s the essential chronology, starting with the bishop, among whose papers I’ve spent much time the past three years.
Read the rest here.
19th century Federal Indian Law & Policy was an egregious breach of separation of church and state.
I think Professor Niebhur’s thesis – “The biggest execution on American soil, it could nonetheless have been much, much larger (and therefore that much more shameful) but for the involvement of two men. One everyone has known of since childhood: Abraham Lincoln. The other, these days, is far less recognized: Bishop Henry B. Whipple,” is a bit too simplistic and reductionist.
For an excellent counter-thesis, your blog’s readers should consult Paul Finkelman’s law review essay, “I COULD NOT AFFORD TO HANG MEN FOR VOTES: LINCOLN THE LAWYER, HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS, AND THE DAKOTA PARDONS” in William Mitchell Law Review, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2013. To cite one key passage: “After the trials Whipple lobbied Lincoln from a distance, but he was clearly ambivalent about what should happen to the convicted Dakota warriors. Thus, even the most committed friend of the Indians in Minnesota was, in the end, not troubled by executing some Dakota soldiers, even though he had initially argued that the captured Indians were “prisoners of war” and it would violate “our own premises” to hang them.173 Whipple’s concerns were mostly about the Indian system, and only tangentially about the condemned Dakota.” (p. 439) Finkelman also points out that while Whipple did not include his meeting with Lincoln in his diary, historians are left with “his discussion of this meeting in his memoirs, published thirty-seven years later, [which] makes one wonder if the meeting took place.” (p. 437)
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