Lincoln’s Law: Another Legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s Political Genius
02/01/2013 // San Francisco, CA, USA // Justice News Flash: Featured Column // Kathleen Scanlan // (press release)
It’s Award Season for the movie industry with Stephen Spielberg’s epic Lincoln a favorite in this year’s pack. The Oscar-nominated film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, opens in January 1865 and recounts the four months of political wrangling leading up to passage of the 13th Amendment. Whether you go to see the historical story, the star studded performances or just what the buzz is about, the inner workings of our constitutional process circa 1865 make excellent subject matter for a Hollywood blockbuster – even if we all know the hero dies in the end.
But two years before the events portrayed in Spielberg’s film, President Lincoln signed a less famous piece of legislation into law. Sometimes referred to as Lincoln’s Law, the False Claims Act is the cornerstone of modern efforts to fight fraud on the government. The back story for how it came to be law is worthy of a Hollywood production in its own right.
Starting with the first shots fired in 1861, spending on war materials during the Civil War skyrocketed as dishonest government contractors took advantage of opportunities to defraud the federal government – especially the Union Army. As one historian noted, “[t]hrough haste, carelessness, or criminal collusion, the state and federal officers accepted almost every offer and paid almost any price for the commodities, regardless of character, quality, or quantity.” The widespread fraud included the sale of rancid food, ailing mules, and defective weapons. Lincoln sought to curb this fraud as a key component of a Union victory. Foreshadowing the kind of thinking that would mark his later efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, Lincoln realized that the government could not fight this fraud on its own. It needed insiders to these sometimes elaborate schemes to bring the evidence to them. He reasoned that the most effective way to get these insiders to come forward was to reward them. Lincoln prevailed. On March 2, 1863 he signed the False Claims Act into law providing for damages and a fine for every false claim submitted. Lincoln’s Law also provided any private citizen or “relator” who brought evidence to them which led to a successful recovery would be rewarded with a portion of whatever the government recovered. It was the country’s first whistleblower law.
While Lincoln’s role in devising whistleblower laws may not top passage of the 13th Amendment, it ought to be considered a close second. It is, undoubtedly, further testament to Lincoln’s political genius and worth keeping in mind while we all wait to see whether Lincoln takes home best picture. President Lincoln’s simple strategy is still true today – to fight fraud most efficiently we need to incentivize people with knowledge of these schemes to come forward.
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