I’ve been offline most of two weeks. On Twitter and Facebook, the twin steeds of my online Roman ride, that’s, like, eternity, man. When I remount, I expect to have to rebuild relationships and re-introduce myself to the Web-iverse.
I haven’t posted here in two weeks, either, which breaks a cardinal rule of social networking.
I didn’t let you know I’d be gone so long because I didn’t know, myself, when I began this research that it would grab me by the scruff of the neck and not let go.
I stayed offline to research the legal situation in future Montana between March 3, 1863 and December 5, 1864 for an article I promised to a Civil War website by the middle of May. (I’m late. I’ll apologize.)
The current novel is Legal Tender. It asks, Why did the Vigilantes hang Jack Slade when he had committed no capital crime in their jurisdiction? (He was thought to have murdered more than 20 men elsewhere.)
If you’ve read God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, you know why the Vigilance Committee formed. In a place where millions in gold was available for the taking, and there was no law, someone had to ensure public safety. A group of men took responsibility for making the region safe from murderers and armed robbers. From start to finish, over a period of about six weeks, they hanged 24 men and accomplished their purpose.
They established a “People’s Court” to administer the law and stood behind it to enforce its rulings.
Their own bylaws obligated them to not use the extreme penalty except in cases of murder or conspiracy to murder.
So why, I asked, did they hang Jack Slade?
Writing the article for the website showed me why. I now have a deeper understanding of what it means to say “there was no law.” There was literally no civil or criminal code of law by which a lawbreaker could be tried. In fact, in 1866 the Idaho Territorial Supreme Court overturned the convictions of all lawbreakers who had been convicted of crimes between March 3, 1863, and December 5, 1864 — on the grounds that they could not have broken the law where there was no law for them to break.
Critics of the Vigilantes complain that they violated due process, which the Constitution guarantees in the Fifth Amendment. I think the answer to that is two-fold. First, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on April 27, 1861. Second, the Vigilantes reasoned that the Constitution was powerless to protect citizens from murder and robbery, absent a code of criminal law, a court system, and enforcement other than themselves. Given two groups whose rights might seem to require respecting, they chose to protect the rights of citizens from murder and robbery.
Do you think the Montana Vigilantes of winter 1863-1864 have a lesson for today’s situation?