Lincoln's Attack on Freedom of the Press in Malone


by Herbert C. Hallas[1]

            On Tuesday morning, October 22, 1861, two of Franklin County’s most prominent Democrats and most vocal critics of Republican President Abraham Lincoln, Joseph R. Flanders and his brother, Francis D. Flanders, were eating breakfast with their families when they heard knocks at their doors about 7:00 a.m. When they opened them, Deputy U.S. Marshals barged in and told the brothers they were under arrest by order of Secretary of State, William H. Seward. They were outraged and refused to move. However, when the arresting officers told them that if they resisted, the marshals would send for troops from Camp Wheeler[2] for assistance, Joseph and Francis surrendered. They insisted on knowing why they had been arrested and demanded their rights to a judicial hearing before they were imprisoned. The marshals told them they would be taken to a federal judge in Albany for a hearing, if he were still there.[3]
            On the train south, the Flanders brothers prepared their legal arguments but the train did not stop in Albany. It kept going overnight to New York City where the brothers were transferred to Fort Lafayette, the military prison lying in the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn. While they were confined in Fort Lafayette, their homes and offices were searched by two U. S. Marshals, the Franklin County Sheriff and two Malone Constables who seized their private letters and papers and sent them to Seward.[4] Joseph and Francis had become early victims of Lincoln’s crackdown on anti-war activists which involved summary arrests and the denial of habeas corpus, a person’s legal right to contest the legality of an arrest in front of a judge before being locked up in prison.[5]
            The fiery and outspoken Flanders brothers had been leaders of the Democratic party in Franklin County since the mid-1840’s. Francis was the younger brother. He had been an Assemblyman, the County Clerk, and during the administration of Democratic President James Buchanan, the Malone Postmaster. At the time Francis was arrested, he was 42-years-old and the hard-hitting editor of the Franklin Gazette, a Democratic newspaper he had founded in 1837.[6] His older brother, Joseph, was a lawyer known for his intellect and knowledge of constitutional law. He was a delegate to the 1846 New York State constitutional convention, a former Assemblyman, and County Judge. At the time Joseph was arrested, he was 46-years-old and had been writing editorials for his brother’s newspaper.[7]

Dangerous Radicals
            About a year and a half before the arrests, the Flanders brothers had begun a donnybrook with the Franklin County Republicans and their influential 41-year-old leader, William Almon Wheeler. As a highly successful state legislator, lawyer, banker and railroad executive, Wheeler had his eyes fixed on getting elected to Congress and working with his fellow Republicans to stop the spread of slavery into the territories. In February, 1860, the Flanders brothers painted Wheeler and the Republicans as dangerous radicals who were intent on destroying the unity of the nation.[8]
            In September, the Republicans in the 16th congressional district nominated Wheeler to run for Congress on the same ticket with Lincoln who had been nominated by the GOP to run for president.[9] The Democrats nominated Augustus C. Hand, a 57-year-old State Supreme Court judge and former Congressman from Elizabethtown in Essex County to run against Wheeler.[10] The Flanders brothers wasted no time going after Wheeler and the Republicans by charging him with using his “business, corporate and moneyed” interests to promote himself politically, and intimating that Wheeler had been operating his railroad and bank as patronage mills for his Republican cronies.[11]

Punish The Traitors
            When the votes were counted in November, Republican elation at the victory of Lincoln and Wheeler soon gave way to anxiety. Many southerners refused to accept the election of Republicans like Lincoln and Wheeler because of their commitment to halting the further spread of slavery. By February 1, 1861, seven states in the Deep South from South Carolina to Texas seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.[12]
            The Flanders brothers sympathized with southern secession and echoed the sentiments of former Democratic Governor and party leader, Horatio Seymour, who said that southern states should be allowed to leave the Union peacefully.[13] The Franklin County Republican reaction to secession was fierce. The Palladium, a Republican newspaper, said, “Punish the traitors. Demand unqualified obedience to the law.”[14]
            War broke out between North and South in April after Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces. Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops and suspended habeas corpus in what was supposed to be a narrowly defined emergency area between Washington and Philadelphia.[15] New York State authorized the raising of 30,000 volunteers to meet Lincoln’s call for troops and Congressman-elect Wheeler became one of the North Country’s most fervent recruiters.[16]

These Wretches Will Turn Upon Us
            The Flanders brothers rallied Democrats to snort and sneer at all the preparations for war and expressions of patriotism that were bubbling up all around them. To protest the call to arms, Francis Flanders resigned his commission as commandant of one of the militia regiments.[17] Within a week of his resignation, he publicly mocked Wheeler’s failure to enlist by writing in the Gazette, that given the “fervent patriotism” sweeping the area, it appeared “a little strange” that there were no volunteers “from the elite of our population.” That same week, the Flanders brothers called for formal recognition of the Confederate States of America.[18]
            The Flanders brothers saved their most caustic attack on Wheeler and Lincoln for the week that Wheeler left on a special train for the first session of the 37th Congress in Washington. In the Gazette, Joseph and Francis Flanders charged that the Lincoln Republicans had precipitated the civil war in order to whip up war fever so that they could maintain the Republican party in power. With a generous nod to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the Flanders brothers warned that Lincoln and his Republicans were determined to carry out a policy of “military despotism.” The Gazette went on to say that the Republicans in Washington were using unnecessary calls for the defense of the nation’s capital and preservation of the Union to accustom the people to the destruction and loss of their liberties. The Flanders brothers predicted, “these wretches will turn upon us, and with vulture rapacity, prey upon the life-blood of the people.[19]
            On July 4, two hundred men with guns raised a Confederate flag in Burke, the next town east of Malone on Wheeler’s railroad line. The men threatened to shoot anyone who tried to tear it down. When news of the flag raising got back to Malone, a large group of men were recruited from the railroad’s machine shops to board the next train for Burke and haul the flag down. While the railroad men waited for the eastbound train, Francis Flanders sent word by horseback to the rebel sympathizers that trouble was headed their way from Malone and to avoid bloodshed, they should lower the flag. As the train from Malone arrived in sight of the Burke station, the pole and flag were seen to fall. A subsequent search located the flag hidden in a drain pipe.[20]

A Mad And Wicked War
            In Washington on the following day,  the House clerk read President Lincoln’s message to Congress about his war measures.[21] Lincoln said he felt it was his duty to arrest individuals he “might deem dangerous to the public safety.” The President assured the House that he was exercising this authority “very sparingly” and was aware of his critics who were arguing that his action was illegal because under their interpretation of the Constitution, only Congress had the power to suspend habeas corpus. Lincoln disputed this interpretation and stated that the Constitution is silent as to whether the Congress or the President is vested with this power. He said the provision in the Constitution for suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, Article One, Section Nine, was “plainly made for a dangerous emergency” and that the framers could have hardly intended that the danger should be allowed to run its course until Congress should be called together, the very assembling of which might be prevented by those fomenting the “dangerous emergency.”[22]
            Toward the end of July, Lincoln ordered 30,000 Union troops to attack Richmond, Virginia, the new Confederate capital, and capture the city. The result was a military disaster for Union troops. The Confederate forces repulsed them at Bull Run and sent them fleeing back to Washington.[23] In the Gazette, the Flanders brothers wrote that the disaster at Bull Run was the result of a continuing plot by the “black Republicans” to revive “war fever.” Joseph and Francis’s editorials raged against what they saw as a “mad and wicked war” and urged the public to “demand peace” because “ruin is staring us in the face.”[24]
            Ignoring subsequent warnings by the Palladium that newspapers who criticize the government during war should not be guaranteed freedom of the press or speech because such criticism encouraged the Southern rebels, the Flanders brothers kept up their attack on Lincoln. They were passionate about their views and confident that the First Amendment of the Constitution would protect their right to criticize the government.[25] Five days after they learned that Wheeler was scheduled to present an American flag to a new regiment of volunteers in Ogdensburg,[26] the Flanders brothers also learned how wrong they were to have had faith that the First Amendment would keep them safe. When they opened their front doors to U.S. Marshals, Joseph and Francis were arrested.

Rights Most Sacred To Freedom
            After the prison doors were locked behind them at Fort Lafayette, all their money was taken from them and they were put in a room with about 50 other prisoners. There were no tables, chairs, wash stands, or bowls. In order to wash, all prisoners had to go outside into the square of the fort, despite the cold and frosty weather. Their meals consisted of a slice of half-boiled fat pork, a slice of stale bread, and a tin cup of coffee.[27]
            After about a week in Fort Lafayette, Joseph and Francis were transferred with other prisoners to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. At Fort Warren, they had to sleep on wooden slats placed on the floor until they were given moss mattresses, pillows and blankets.[28]
            Several weeks passed before an agent of Seward came to see them. He offered to set them free if they would sign an oath of allegiance prescribed by the Lincoln administration. Joseph and Francis refused and handed Seward’s agent written reasons for their refusal. The Flanders brothers adamantly argued that their arrest without any charges other than Seward’s “arbitrary and illegal order” was a denial of their “most sacred rights” and demanded an “unconditional discharge.” Joseph and Francis maintained that they had always intended to be loyal to the U. S. Constitution and would take an oath to that effect. However, they refused to take an oath to support Lincoln’s government which they contended had unconstitutionally deprived them of their freedom to peacefully oppose its actions. The Flanders brothers concluded by stating that their arrest had deprived them of rights “sacred to freedom and which no American citizen should voluntarily surrender.”[29]

No Trials For Traitors
            While the Flanders brothers remained confined in Fort Warren, their families in Malone tried to pull as many political strings as they could to free their loved ones. There is no evidence they tried to contact Wheeler but the family did reach out to Republican Governor Edwin D. Morgan who wrote a letter to President Lincoln urging him to grant the brothers a trial as citizens of New York. In mid-December, an entourage consisting of the wives and fathers-in-law of the Flanders brothers traveled to Washington where Democratic Congressman Erastus Corning of Albany had arranged for them to have an audience with President Lincoln.[30]
            Lincoln listened to them but denied knowing anything about the case and told them they should see Seward whose office was in charge of it. Seward declined to see them until Corning intervened and arranged a meeting. At the session, Seward refused to agree to give the Flanders brothers a trial or release them because he said they were “traitors.” As long as Seward was in charge of their case, the Flanders brothers would remain in prison at Fort Warren. Weeks turned into months, and New Year’s Day, 1862, came and went. Finally, on February 14, 1862, Lincoln took the Flanders brothers and other political prisoners out of the hands of Seward and put them under the control of his new Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.[31]
            Lincoln ordered Stanton to free prisoners who were not spies or dangers to the public safety, if they would sign a promise not to give aid and comfort to the enemy. On February 22, the Flanders brothers agreed to sign such a promise and their nightmare came to an end. On February 23, four months and a day after they were arrested and put in prison, they were set free.[32]
            Once they were back in the Gazette’s editorial offices, the brothers told their readers that they were more determined than ever to strengthen and defend the Democratic party. Francis vowed he would “fearlessly” follow the dictates of his conscience and “never surrender” his constitutional right to express his own opinion, in his own way.[33]
            The four months in prison may not have dampened the fiery spirits of the Flanders brothers but their arrest had a chilling effect on Franklin County Democrats. They were unable to elect a county official or an assemblyman for the rest of the 19th century.[34] The arrest elevated Wheeler’s local reputation as a man who had influence with powerful people in Washington which in turn enabled him to strengthen his grip on the Franklin County Republican party.
            Following their release from Fort Warren, Joseph and Francis returned to Malone. Francis continued his work as editor of the Gazette and, from 1874, served as president of the Malone Board of Education, until he died unexpectedly from bronchial pneumonia, on January 26, 1881, at the age of 61.[35] Joseph continued to practice law and write editorials for the Gazette until 1868 when he relocated his legal practice to New York City. He lived in the Richmond Hill section of Queens County until he died at the age of 71 on November 6, 1886.[36]

            It is difficult to legally justify the arrest of the Flanders brothers and the decision to incarcerate them for four months in a military prison without a trial. How editorial commentary in a weekly newspaper published in a small town near the Canadian border, almost 600 miles north of Washington, D.C., presented a “dangerous emergency” to the workings of the federal government, or was “dangerous to the public safety,” defies comprehension.
            The arrest of the Flanders brothers was historically significant for several reasons. Firstly, it was a trial balloon launched by the Lincoln administration to gauge public reaction to the arrest and military imprisonment of Democrats for anti-war activity. When news of the arrest of the Flanders brothers reached the public, there were no significant outbursts of disapproval or indignation. Within months after Joseph and Francis were released, on August 8, 1862, Lincoln issued a nationwide suspension of habeas corpus and used military prisons to incarcerate between 10,000 and 15,000 political prisoners without a prompt trial.[37]
            Secondly, and even more significantly, Joseph and Francis Flanders, in the face of the awesome power of the federal government, courageously asserted that their arrest was illegal and in violation of their constitutionally protected rights to criticize the government – rights the Flanders brothers said were most “sacred to freedom.” If they had backed down and signed an oath to support Lincoln’s government and not criticize it, they would have been set free. Instead, they stood their ground until Lincoln backed down and released them after they promised not to give aid or comfort to the enemy. Constitutional lawyers have said that when Americans stop asserting their constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, they risk losing those rights. By asserting their First Amendment rights, Joseph and Francis Flanders helped secure continuation of those rights for all of us.

Works Cited

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. (accessed February 5, 2009). 

Brooklyn (NY) Eagle, March 15, 1862. 

Congressional Globe. 1861-1873.

Conlin, Joseph R. The American Past. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.

Greenberg, David. “Lincoln’s Crackdown.” Slate Magazine, November 30, 2001, (accessed February 2, 2009).

Klein, Milton M., ed. The Empire State. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Malone (NY) Franklin Gazette, January 28, 1881; November 12, 1886.

Malone (NY) Frontier Palladium, February 16, May 24, September 20, and October 18, 1860; January 31, February 14, April 25, May 2, June 27, July 11, August 1, August 22, September 19, and October 17, 1861; February 20, 1862.

Marshall, John A. American Bastile. Philadelphia: Thomas W. Hartley & Co., 1881.

Seaver, Frederick J. Historical Sketches of Franklin County. Albany: J.B. Lyon      Company, 

[1] Copyright © 2010 Herbert C. Hallas. The author lives on Long Island, NY and may be contacted at This article is from his biography of William Almon Wheeler which is being prepared for publishing. Mr. Hallas is a past president of the Franklin County Historical and Museum Society.
[2] Camp Wheeler was a major troop depot in Ogdensburg where North Country volunteers were trained after the Civil War broke out in April. The facility was named to honor the newly elected Republican Congressman, William Almon Wheeler of Malone, for his work recruiting troops and supporting Lincoln’s war effort. Franklin Palladium, 9/19/1861.
[3] John A. Marshall. American Bastile,  pp. 111-112.
[4] Ibid., p. 116.
[5] David Greenberg, “Lincoln’s Crackdown,” Slate Magazine, November 30, 2001, (accessed 2/16/2009).
[6] Franklin Gazette, 1/28/1881.
[7] Gazette, 11/12/1886; Frederick J. Seaver, Historical Sketches of Franklin County,  p. 731.
[8] Franklin Palladium, 2/16/1860.
[9] Palladium, 5/24/1860 and 9/20/1860.
[10] Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, (accessed 2/5/2009). Hand was the grandfather of the famous Federal Circuit Judge B. Learned Hand.
[11] Palladium, 10/18/1860.
[12] Milton M. Klein, ed., The Empire State, p. 414.
[13] Palladium, 2/14/1861; Klein, p. 414.                                               
[14] Palladium, 1/31/1861.
[15] Greenberg, Slate Magazine.
[16] Palladium, 4/25/1861.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 5/2/1861.
[19] Ibid., 6/27/1861.
[20] Ibid., 7/11/1861 and Seaver,  pp. 230-231.
[21] Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 1st sess., p. 13.
[22] Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 1st sess., Appendix, p. 2. The preamble to Article One, Section Nine, where the authority to suspend habeas corpus is located, refers to “specified acts which the Constitution expressly prohibits to Congress [emphasis added].” Therefore, critics of Lincoln, including the Flanders brothers, could argue that a “plain reading” of Section Nine shows that suspension, if undertaken, is a power reserved for Congress, not the President. For an excellent discussion of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the context of New York State politics, see Frank J. Williams, “When Albany Challenged The President,” New York Archives, Winter 2009, pp. 31-36.
[23] Joseph R. Conlin, The American Past, p. 405.
[24] Palladium, 8/1/1861.
[25] Ibid., 8/22/1861.
[26] Palladium, 10/17/1861.
[27] Marshall, p. 112.
[28] Ibid., pp. 112-113.
[29] Ibid., p. 114.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid., p. 116.
[32] Ibid.; Palladium, 2/20/1862.
[33] Brooklyn Eagle, 3/15/1862, p.2.
[34] Seaver, p. 171.
[35] Gazette, 1/28/1881.
[36] Ibid., 11/12/1886.
[37] Greenberg, Slate Magazine.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment.