He called the “We hold these truths” passage of the Declaration of Independence “the father of all moral principle.”
Was our sixteenth president the American Caesar and the progenitor of Big Government? I’ve read a couple of books contending for this view, which has been gaining steady ground in recent years, on both the left and right—with the left of course praising him for it and the right reviling him—but I don’t find it persuasive.
I hold the opposite view. I think Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest friends liberty has ever had. This makes me, apparently, a “Lincoln cultist,” to use the epithet bestowed by Thomas DiLorenzo, the libertarian economist turned historical polemicist.
I think the traditional version of Lincoln, the Honest Abe of lore, the hero who saved the Union and freed the slaves, is—discounting for legends and exaggeration—more or less accurate. Was he a saint? No. Was he the devil? Not even close.
So that makes people like me the bad guys in this revisionist account, because we fail to see the real Lincoln, Lincoln unmasked, Lincoln the tyrant.
The irony is that his love of liberty was deep and unshakeable. In early 1861, as the clouds of civil war were gathering, the president-elect visited Independence Hall. After praising the great decisions made there by our ancestors, he declared: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” These, he added, “gave hope of liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time.”
Liberty. From the hope of liberty sprang all his political feelings.
What motivates the new generation of severe Lincoln critics? In every case I’ve encountered, it is fairly transparently motivated by sympathy for the theories of John C. Calhoun, intellectual father of the Confederacy.
Calhoun is the anti-Lincoln. You have to choose between him and Lincoln. You can’t agree with both. These guys go for Calhoun, so they attack Lincoln.
Most are pretty obvious about carrying water for Calhoun’s theories of nullification and secession, but the more sophisticated ones like Thomas Woods are pretty careful to sidestep the baggage of racism and civil war and put on the most appealing face possible. But set all that aside. What of their arguments? I find them unpersuasive.
Calhounites think Lincoln a tyrant acting in violation of his oath to uphold the Constitution. But I think that in saving the Union, our sixteenth president was not only upholding his oath to the Constitution rightly interpreted, but also defending liberty itself, in the country then most fully dedicated to liberty.
DiLorenzo and his ilk revile the Railsplitter as a despot. But in resisting the spirit of despotism at the heart of the Rebellion, he was, I think, nobly resisting despotism. In fighting to preserve a Constitution dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” against a counter-Constitution dedicated to the opposite principle, he was, very simply, defending freedom against slavery.
Honest Abe understood, as apparently his critics of both the left and right do not, that liberty and equality are two sides of one coin. If all men are created free and equal, then freedom and slavery are incompatible and irreconcilable.
The case for Lincoln as defender of liberty has been ably made by Thomas L. Krannawitter in his 2008 book, Vindicating Lincoln. Krannawitter shows persuasively, point by point, why we should regard Lincoln as the opposite of a tyrant, a racist, a usurper, an American Bismarck, and so forth. I won’t rehearse all of his arguments, but the book is powerful. If you like it, you might also want to pick up Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided and New Birth of Freedom—wonderfully able defenses of the statesmanship of the man from Springfield.
In addition to Krannawitter’s and Jaffa’s arguments, I will venture to offer a speculative argument of my own. I suspect that, had the Confederacy prevailed in the Civil War, the ultimate result would not have been what most people seem to imagine, peace, but rather continuing war, to the death. Instead of the romantic scene of two American republics with similar institutions trading peacefully with each other across a long, unguarded border, I think slavery would have ended up triumphing throughout much of North America. The expansionist spirit of the slave interest would likely have produced war to her south, in the Caribbean and in Mexico (as had happened once before), and also to her north, by using control of the Mississippi and an alliance with Britain to pick off the weaker states of the old Union. The Confederates clearly desired to expand the domain of slavery beyond its then-current confines. During the war they took steps to spread it all the way to the Pacific, and their Constitution had a clause in it specifically intended to facilitate the admission of states from the original Union—provided they accepted slavery. I think the game would have ended not with a peace treaty but ultimately with a “restoration” of the “union” under the Stars and Bars. The house divided would have ceased to be divided—it would have become all-slave. That prospect, I believe, is why Lincoln fought so relentlessly to suppress the Rebellion. I think he understood himself to be saving the Union, and it’s liberty-Constitution, not just from dismemberment, but from permanent annihilation. Life or death.
Lincoln has been criticized for publicly admitting that he would be willing to leave some slaves in chains in order to preserve the Union. But this paradox is only apparent. He saw the Union as the only force capable of ever striking off those chains. If the American Union were to die, American freedom would die with it. The Slave Power would feel itself vindicated, and look about for new lands to conquer. Lincoln’s single-minded focus on the Union doesn’t reveal him to be unprincipled. It reveals him to have pursued the highest principle, in the most principled way he could, under the most difficult of circumstances. All his actions, it turns out, were for the sole and single goal of preserving liberty.
Even, paradoxically, things like suspending habeas corpus in militarily vital areas, and depriving slaveholders in rebel areas of their human property, and arming freed slaves to fight their former masters.
Each of these controversial actions was constitutional. Each was justified by his oath. Each was carefully drawn to achieve its constitutional purpose and no more. Each was intended solely to preserve liberty.
Lincoln called the Declaration of Independence “the father of all moral principle in me.” The second paragraph of that document declares:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It is, of course, impossible to square the proposition that “all men are created equal” with the proposition that “some men are naturally entitled to rule other men without their consent.” This explains why Calhoun explicitly rejected the Declaration and held it to be a “self-evident lie.”
The Confederate vice president, Alexander Stephens, in his “inaugural” address in February 1861, argued that the Founders had simply been wrong. They were mistaken to hold that “all men to be created equal” and to regard slavery as “in violation of the laws of nature.” Rather, he said,
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.
What of Calhoun’s “constitutional right of secession”? I’ve read a lot of defenses of it, but it has always struck me as self-contradictory. If we accept the “state compact theory” of the Constitution, and with it the Calhounite doctrines of unilateral state nullification and secession, then any individual state can effectively amend the Constitution by exiting the Union at will—or can bully the rest of the states by threatening to do so. Madison pointed out that if one state can unilaterally part with the others, then the others can also unilaterally part with it, by “seceding” from it en masse. In other words, the Union could expel a member without its consent. Did Calhoun think that?
In his later writings, the Sage of Montpelier revealed a deep concern that Calhoun’s nullification-secession idea would inject a fatal weakness into the Union.
The elderly Madison struggled to counter the popular claim that he himself had endorsed nullification and secession in his own Virginia Resolution of 1800. That was a misreading, he insisted. He thought then, and still thought that the rightful remedy for federal government oppression was not unilateral state disobedience to federal law, but the normal course of debate and legislation. States should band together to petition Congress to repeal the offending law. Or, in an extreme case, petition it to propose a constitutional amendment. If the crisis is really severe, and Congress won’t propose the necessary amendment, then the states have one last resort before war: they can convene an Article V convention to discuss the issue and propose constitutional amendments themselves.
Article V, not secession, is the true rightful remedy.
Why can’t a state simply disregard a federal law it considers to be patently unconstitutional? It can, and in some cases it must, because each officer, state and federal, is sworn to uphold the same federal Constitution. All parties are obliged to follow it, even when one of them misinterprets it. But in trying to “nullify” a federal law, a state risks open confrontation with the federal government. Pushing back on a manifestly unconstitutional federal law is one thing; inviting civil war over some mere policy difference is another. States that want to push back on bad federal laws should pick their spots carefully.
Does the Constitution really trap the states in perpetual union? Yes and no. Yes, it’s true the Constitution has no provision for secession—the Union is legally perpetual. There is no legal way for a state to exit. But also, no. If a state is truly being oppressed, it always has a natural right of revolution. It can always take up arms against tyranny, just as the colonies did at Lexington and Concord. (Individuals have that right, too.)
Now, if the Union collectively wishes to establish a formal process for allowing secession, it can do so with a constitutional amendment. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical of the need for such an amendment. A process that doesn’t require the unanimous consent of the states is basically unjust, while a process that requires unanimity is unnecessary, since, in that case, the states could easily amend the Constitution to formally allow the named state to secede. So why bother setting out a formal process in advance?
The counter-argument is that, if states are trapped in the Union against their will, then the inevitable result will be tyranny by the federal government. Accepting a positive-law right of secession will reduce the need for secession. It will make the Union stronger, not weaker.
I don’t buy it. While a creeping federal despotism has certainly appeared and grown over the past century, in the wake of the Progressive Era reforms and the New Deal and Great Society, I don’t think the cause of that problem was the lack of a secession clause.
The problem was the disarrangement of the three branches in the wake of the revolution of 1913. The ratification of the 16th and 17th Amendments, the weakening of the Senate, the creation of the income tax, the creation of a central bank, the Fed, capable of debasing the currency—these “reforms” planted the seeds of systemic disequilibrium and corruption. The executive and judicial branches have waxed in power at the expense of the legislative. Washington has waxed in power at the expense of the states. Limits on federal power have been trampled down. The states begin to look like provinces. Washington is increasingly insular and corrupt.
Could a secession clause counteract the negative effects of the revolution of 1913? I don’t think so. It would, as I’ve said, weaken the Union still further than it already has been.
An alternative and much better safeguard against centralized tyranny is exactly what the Constitution itself prescribes: ameliorative legislation, or, if necessary, one or more constitutional amendments. (For my detailed thoughts on how we can renew the Republic, see my proposed Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life.)
I believe the real purpose of Calhoun’s alleged “constitutional right of secession” was to provide a basis for ensuring that slaveholders could preserve their peculiar institution without having to extend the same right to their human property—to ensure that only masters, and never slaves, would be free to “secede” from their oppressors.
Calhoun, to be fair to him, was no advocate of secession. He wanted to preserve the Union with slavery intact. And his theory of nullification and secession (which he called the “concurrent majority” principle) was spun out to provide a legal basis for achieving that end.
The acquisition of vast territory from Mexico in the late 1840s produced the crises of the 1850s, from the Wilmot Proviso to the Compromise of 1850 to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise to Dred Scott. This series of crises awakened the free states to the danger that the entire Mexican cession might be turned into slave states if slavery were not positively prohibited there during the territorial period—and that a “second Dred Scott opinion” might follow the first, effectively converting all of the existing free states into slave states by judicial fiat. This is the danger Lincoln warned of in his House Divided speech.
The long crisis of the 1850s forced the two sides to debate the nature of the Union itself, and the self-evident truths of the Declaration. Lincoln and Calhoun have come to be regarded as the most eloquent spokesmen, respectively, for the two sides in this greatest of all American debates.
All men have a natural right of revolution—a right to throw off tyranny. This is the claim of the Founders. They assert the existence of this right without proving it. They call it “self-evident.” And so it is, to anyone who thinks about it. And this self-evident right justified them in resisting the despotic laws of Parliament and King George. They were appealing to a higher law. They were reclaiming their property—their inalienable rights—which no man could rightfully take away.
But the term “all men” was an embarrassment for the slaveholding interests in the new Republic. How to keep it from applying to their black slaves? Answer: Assert that the right to secede is a mere positive legal right enshrined in the Constitution itself. Assert that the states are the “parties” to the Constitution, rather than the people of the whole Union. Deny the existence of the natural right of revolution proclaimed in the Declaration, which would extend to all human beings, including black slaves. Reinterpret the Constitution to make it the founding document instead of the troublesome Declaration. Denounce that Declaration as a self-evident lie.
Influenced by the historicist ideas of Hegel, Calhoun went so far as to argue that the proof that black slaves in the South deserved to be enslaved was the fact that they were slaves!
The crisis of 1861 was precipitated by the slaveholding interest’s refusal to accept the results of a lawful election under the Constitution. The accession of the newly formed Republican party, whose platform promised to prohibit slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico (but not where it already existed) portended a future the South feared: the entry into the Union (eventually) of a large number of (probably) free states, which could then (presumably) outvote the slave states in the Senate, the South’s last available check on any attempt to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.
The South chose to regard this possible future, made plausible by the election of Lincoln and the Republicans, as an attack on their vital interests and cherished way of life, and even likened it to the British attempt to tyrannize the Americans in the 1760s and ’70s. But the analogy fails, because the authors of this supposed “aggression” were none other than the American People themselves, acting lawfully and peacefully under their own Constitution. Besides, the South could always have tried to avert this feared future by winning the next election. The secession ordinances of 1860 and ’61 were precipitated by the fear that the slave states had lost the argument on the morality of slavery, and so now must resort to the ready-to-hand Calhounite arguments to justify secession. They grabbed hold of those arguments, took their marbles, and went home.
But this constitutional argument, stripped of its pretensions, boils down to the proposition that “might makes right,” which, as Lincoln pointed out, is the argument used to justify tyranny.
Turn it whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent … [that says ‘you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it’].
[Lincoln, speech at Chicago, July 10, 1858.]
The Confederate project was tyrannical at its heart, beginning with the proposition that all men are not created equal and ending with the passing of illegal secession ordinances and firing on Fort Sumter.
Did Lincoln’s statesmanship lay the groundwork for big government and the modern social welfare state? No. As Charles Kesler points out in his essay, “Getting Right with Lincoln,” (Claremont Review of Books, Feb. 21, 2001):
A generation after the Civil War, it would have been hard to see how American government had been distorted or permanently enlarged by Lincoln’s administration. The widows and orphans of army veterans were being paid pensions; the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution had been added and so the national government had a new authority over civil and voting rights; but nothing essential to American republicanism had changed.
In those days, the Republican party stood for energetic but limited national government, for the equal rights of man and for the privileges and immunities of American citizenship. Calvin Coolidge’s party, two or three generations later, was still very much the party of Lincoln.
Modern American liberalism began not with Lincoln or Coolidge but with the conscious break with the principles of the American founding made by the so-called Progressives. Big Government began when Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly rejected Lincoln’s (and Taft’s, and Coolidge’s) Republicanism because they discerned at its heart the founders’ republicanism.
Okay, you say, that’s all nice. But what exactly did those great men mean by “all men are created equal,” anyway?
In 1857, the Supreme Court in Dred Scott held that black men had no constitutional rights that a white man was bound to respect. The Declaration, the Court argued, did not refer to all human beings, but rather only to all white people of British (or perhaps of European) descent. In other words, “all men are created equal” is not a statement about individuals but about groups: one group, British colonists living in North America, were created equal to a second group, British subjects living in the mother country.
Lincoln, following the Founders, rejected this interpretation. He thought the Declaration means just what it says: that all men are created equal.
But because Americans in Lincoln’s time tended to think of blacks as inferior to whites in various respects, Lincoln knew that if he were to succeed as a statesman—if he were to succeed in preserving liberty—he had to clarify what he meant in rejecting the “group rights” interpretation. Notice how precisely and carefully he does so, in one of his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary. But I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. [Great applause.]
[The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “First Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois” (August 21, 1858).]
Lincoln always insisted that the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed, because the Constitution protected it there. He hated slavery, but loved liberty so much, he would tolerate the continued existence of slavery in some states in order to preserve the Constitution, whose underlying principles offered the only hope of ever liberating any slave in any state. As he had argued in 1857, in his speech denouncing the Dred Scott decision:
I think the authors of that notable instrument [the Declaration] intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.
[Speech on Dred Scott (1857), in Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. II, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 403-407.]
More was at stake than the mere question of whether slavery should be permitted in the territories acquired from Mexico. At stake was the preservation of self-government, and the success or failure of the American experiment.
In a speech on Independence Day 1858, Lincoln offered still another argument in defense of the Declaration’s self-evident truth, namely, that it supplies the unifying principle that, in America, serves the role filled in other lands by ties of blood and kinship.
He began by noting that when we celebrate the Fourth of July, we celebrate the deeds and words of the Founders, men who, for many people in his day, were “fathers and grandfathers,” the flesh and blood of those who were then living. But not so for the nation’s many immigrants:
We have . . . among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men [who created our country]. They are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian . . . finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none. They cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel they are part of us. But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ And then they feel that the moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men—that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration. And so they are.
[Speech on Independence Day 1858.]
I’ll end with a quotation from one of my favorite American statesmen, Calvin Coolidge, whose principles were, as far as I can tell, identical to those of Lincoln. It sums up with remarkable concision why—peace, my pro-secessionist friends—we should go for Lincoln over Calhoun:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
[Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1926, Philadelphia, Pa.]
Exceedingly restful, indeed.
In place of the Pledge of Allegiance, our national loyalty statement (if we must have one) should be the “We hold these truths” passage of the Declaration of Independence.
Published: November 2, 2014.
Author: Dean Clancy.