Lessons From 'Sic Temper Tyrannis'

I rarely diary at RedState anymore. I miss it [you all surely know where I’ve gone], and miss you all. But this is one I’ve been asked to post here by some friends. Hope you enjoy it.


The Associated Press began operation in 1846. News media organizations, once begun, in complete disregard and in spite of our prescriptions of their impending doom, tend to stay around for a very long time.

AP correspondent Lawrence Gobright wrote what the Washington Post described as “the most buried lede ever published” on April 14, 1865. In a 720-word report, the fact that President Lincoln “had been shot through the head above and back of the temporal bone, and that some of his brain was oozing out” was held until the fourth paragraph, buried 221 words deep in the story.

In those days, it took days for news to travel, although the telegraph provided more-or-less instant communication for important stories like the president’s assassination. Today, we have 24-hour coverage of Donald Trump’s steak and wine-laden press conferences. In those days, people would sit back and read the stories instead of browsing through pages of headlines screaming for attention. In those days, people got the news once or twice a day, instead of being constantly barraged by a fusillade of facts and opinion (telling the difference between them becomes a blurry exercise in discernment).

John Wilkes Booth, the disaffected actor who killed Lincoln, shouted “sic temper tyrannis” immediately after his deadly deed. It’s Latin for “thus always to tyrants.” In fact, the full version of the phrase is “Sic semper evello mortem tyrannis” (“Thus always I bring death to tyrants”). Booth let the “I bring death” part speak for itself.

Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was arrested wearing a T-shirt bearing the phrase, having brought death with him also.

The seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia features Virtue with her foot on the neck of Tyranny, bearing the same phrase uttered by Booth and worn by McVeigh.

America hates tyranny. It angers us to the point where we lose our civil impulses and resort to inhumanity. It causes us to look for someone to put down the oppressors, to do battle for us. In Russia, people deal with tyranny by turning to fatalism and vodka. In Europe, it’s revolution. In India, it’s mass civil disobedience. In America, we consume ourselves.

There were two sides to the story leading up to Lincoln’s death. In 1860, the northern states were exercising economic tyranny over the southern states. But they saw a greater tyranny, on a larger scale, being played out in the institution of slavery, for which they saw no relief by a federal government deadlocked by indecision and compromise. This led to war.

President Lincoln’s commitment during the war was preserving the union. To do so, he violated the Constitution, suspended basic rights like Habeas Corpus, and granted freedom to slaves, which did not become Constitutional until the 14th Amendment. Of course, Lincoln was right to oppose slavery—anyone except soulless racists would agree. But using tyranny to oppose tyranny leads to violence.

Booth’s cry of “sic temper tyrannis” was simply the final note of a symphony of death when people who could not agree on the meaning of humanity opposed each other’s tyranny with their own.

Today, our country is faced with a federal government whose powers would be considered unbelievable and intolerable in 1865. The government can track your every word, movement, and communication. With drones, phones, and intercepts, there’s literally nowhere you can go outside of the deep woods to get “off grid.” And even in the deep woods, they can find you, eventually.

There are some who believe it’s too late, that the Visigoths have, figuratively, crossed the Rubicon, that river which separated civilized Rome from the barbarians. They believe our society is without foundation and is one step from falling into chaos and everyone-for-themselves. They horde food, gold and ammunition waiting for the day when those things will be more valuable than stocks and bonds.

Political candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire Donald Trump offer an alternative to tyranny. Sanders offers “revolution” to a socialist model and Trump offers to “make America great again.” America can only be great if we remain civil and not yield to our baser compulsions.

Remember the lesson of Lincoln and Booth. Becoming a tyrant to fight tyranny leads only to “sic temper tyrannis.” The solution is to not overthrow, but to effectively dismantle the apparatus of tyranny, reduce government to its enumerated powers, and stand with the dignity and value of life. We don’t need a strongman. We need a leader strong enough to resist becoming one.

(Published in the Houston Home Journal March 12, 2016)