Police State/Civil Liberties

Who is the worst civil liberties president in US history?

By Glenn Greenwald

Where do the abuses of the last decade from Bush and Obama rank when compared to prior assaults in the name of war?

The following interesting question arose yesterday from what at first appeared to be some petty Twitter bickering: who was the worst president for civil liberties in US history? That question is a difficult one to answer because it is so reliant upon which of many valid standards of measurement one chooses; it depends at least as much on the specific rights which one understands the phrase “civil liberties” to encompass. That makes the question irresolvable in any definitive way, but its examination is nonetheless valuable for the light it sheds on current political disputes.

It’s worthwhile first to set forth the context in which the question arose. At their Lawfare blog, Ritika Singh and Benjamin Wittes posted an excerpt of an essay they wrote for a new book on the War of 1812; their essay pertains to the impact of that war on civil liberties and executive power. The two Brookings writers note that despite intense domestic opposition to the war, President Madison “eschewed the authority to detain American citizens in military custody or try them in military tribunals, and more generally, declined to undertake the sorts of executive overreaches we have come to expect  – and even encourage – from our presidents in war.”

After Julian Sanchez, I and others tweeted that essay by remarking that Madison refrained from exploiting the war to abridge civil liberties, Slate’s Matt Yglesias’ wrote:

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