Editor’s column: Presidential precedent exists for drastic action in times of crisis

September 12, 2021 6:36 pm
American president Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924) gives a speech to Congress, Washington DC, 4th December 1917. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

American president Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) gives a speech to Congress, Washington DC, 4th December 1917. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a six-prong strategy to try to get the current surge of COVID-19 under control. His platform includes fairly non-controversial steps that include making home COVID testing kits more readily available and extending the mask mandate in commercial air travel. 

But the leading piece of Biden’s plan is one that has outraged the Republican Party and its leaders in Tennessee: A requirement that private businesses with 100 employees or more must ensure those workers are all vaccinated against COVID-19 or have employees take weekly COVID tests.

Gov. Bill Lee’s first response, which came during a Thursday press conference, was that the vaccine mandate is “a terrible idea.” A short time later, he acknowledged that the vaccine is the best strategy available for, if not ending, mitigating the current surge. 

Lee then tweeted “‘This is not about freedom’ is a phrase that should never come out of a U.S. President’s mouth.” Even more recently, Lee added that Biden’s plan is “cynical and divisive.” 

Biden’s full phrase to which Lee referred was “It’s not about freedom or personal choice. It’s about protecting yourself and those around you.”

Apparently, many Republicans do recognize the vaccine is vital to helping Tennesseans. The issue is that they don’t want to be told what to do, and particularly not by a Democratic president. 

I’m not writing to bash Republicans: I get that they don’t want to be ordered around, and I understand that. I don’t like being told what to do, either. 

But I will provide some history on times when American presidents have set mandates or made unpopular decisions on behalf of national security or in times of national crisis.

A. Scott Berg, one of the definitive biographers of Woodrow Wilson, wrote that Wilson considered the seizure of certain rights from Americans as acts of patriotism during the U.S. involvement in World War I. That meant that even though Wilson had earlier in his career said the Sedition Act of 1798 “cut perilously near the root of freedom of speech and of the press,” in 1918 he urged Congress to pass an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Wilson in 1918 when it upheld the conviction of Charles Schenk for distributing anti-conscription leaflets. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in the majority opinion that the First Amendment does not protect language that presents “a clear and present danger,” giving the government the right to limit such speech. 

Well before Wilson’s actions superseded the First Amendment, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus after the Civil War began in 1861. The writ of habeas corpus is another fundamental constitutional right specifying there must be legal grounds on which to detain a prisoner and that prisoners cannot be detained indefinitely. 

Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus to give military leaders the right to arrest and silence individuals for their actions deemed threatening to military operations. 

President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and President Wilson impinged up civil liberties during World War 1. Precedent exists for drastic presidential action in a crisis.

While both these examples took place during times of war, it is inarguable that the COVID-19 pandemic is a national crisis, if not a war.  According to the New York Times, more than 657,000 Americans have died from COVID. In Tennessee, more than 13,500 people have died of the virus or about 1.37 percent of Tennesseans who have gotten sick with COVID-19 have died. 

Compare those numbers to Americans who have died during wars: 117,000 Americans died in World War I1. In World War II, American military and civilian deaths reached 418,500, more than 200,000 less than the number who have died from COVID-19. In the Vietnam conflict, 58,220 Americans died and of those,1,295 were Tennesseans. 

And in our most recent conflict, the 20-year war in Afghanistan, 6,294 American military personnel and civilian contractors were killed. 

War is hell and military deaths are tragic. But so are deaths from COVID-19, and the latter are largely preventable by vaccine. I’d bet few Americans of any political stripe wholeheartedly endorse mandates like Biden’s that seem to challenge our notions of a free country and constitutional rights, but when people won’t voluntarily do the right thing, leaders must make the decisions for them.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.