He regarded liberty, rooted in equality, as ‘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 praising him for it and the right reviling him—but I don’t find it persuasive.
To the contrary. 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.
In truth, 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.
In fact, his love of liberty was deep and unshakeable, and in practice a good deal more consistent than his critics’. 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.’
From the ‘hope of liberty’ sprang all his political feelings.
What motivates the new generation of rabid Lincoln critics? In every case I’ve encountered, it is transparently motivated by sympathy for the theories of John C. Calhoun, intellectual father of the Confederacy.
Calhoun is the anti-Lincoln.
Most Lincoln-haters 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 an appealing face.
But their arguments are unpersuasive.
The Calhounite critique boils down to the assertion that Lincoln was a tyrant because he acted in violation of the rights of the states to secede from the Union, and thus in violation of his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
This assertion is wrong. In saving the Union, our sixteenth president was not only adhering to the Constitution, and his oath to preserve it, he was defending liberty itself, in the country then most fully dedicated to liberty.
Reviling the Railsplitter as a despot, DiLorenzo and his ilk cite certain acts they regard as illegal: the suspension of habeas corpus, the property destruction of Sherman’s march to the sea, the allegedly ‘cynical’ Emancipation Proclamation, and above all the forcible suppression of slave-state secession ordinances. But what was he going to do? If secession was illegal, and if he had an oath to faithfully execute the laws and uphold the Constitution, how could he not take strong action?
Every one of these controversial actions was constitutional, justified by the necessity of suppressing domestic insurrection. If anything, Lincoln was remarkably restrained and cautious, always take care to cite the constitutional grounds of his actions and to conform to the Constitution’s limitations on his power. If he was a Caesar, he was the most remarkably modest and scrupulous caesar who ever lived.
Despotism lay at the heart of the Confederate project. Despotism was its soul. Did not the Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, proclaim, in early 1861, that slavery, based on the racial superiority of the white race over the black, was the very ‘corner-stone’ of the Confederacy?
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, President Lincoln was doing nothing less than defending freedom against slavery.
Liberty and equality are not opposite principles but two sides of the same coin. If all men are created equal, and thus equally free, then freedom and slavery must be incompatible principles, irreconcilable. They cannot live together forever. Either one or the other will prevail. Where earlier American statesmen had striven to delay the inevitable, and keep this irreconcilable tension from destroying the Union, Lincoln chose to stop appeasing the bullying tactics of the slave states. If forced to choose between strong action and letting slavery destroy both the Union and freedom, he would choose strong action.
The case for Lincoln as defender of liberty has been ably made by Thomas L. Krannawitter in his 2008 book, Vindicating Lincoln. Krannawitter painstakingly nd persuasively explains why we should regard Lincoln as the opposite of a tyrant, a racist, a usurper, an American Bismarck, and so on. I won’t rehearse all of his arguments, but the case is overwhelming. (Readers who like the book should also pick up Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided and New Birth of Freedom.)
In addition to Krannawitter’s arguments, I will venture to offer one of my own, one that’s admittedly speculative but I think probably correct. Had the Confederacy prevailed in the Civil War, the ultimate result would, I strongly suspect, not have been what most people seem to imagine, peaceful coexistence, but rather continuing competition—a sort of North American cold war. The expansionist spirit of the slave interest would likely have produced wars 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 and bring them into the Southern 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. Their constitution permitted the admission of new states, provided they accepted slavery. Ultimately the game would have ended with the restoration of the Union, under the Stars and Bars. The house would not have remained divided. It would have become all-slave. This, ultimately, is why Lincoln fought.
He 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 stance is not hypocritical. If the Union was the only force capable of ever striking off the slaves’ chains, then preserving it had to be prioritized. If the American Union were to die, the possibility of emancipating the slaves would die. The Slave Power would feel itself vindicated, and look about for new places to expand and new ways to subjugate ‘inferior’ races. Lincoln’s single-minded focus on the Union does not make him unprincipled. It makes him a true friend of the highest principle, liberty, acting to save it in the most principled way, under the most difficult conditions.
All of his actions were aimed at preserving liberty: suspending habeas corpus in militarily vital areas, depriving slaveholders of their human ‘property’ in rebel areas, arming freed slaves to fight their former masters, endorsing the destructive march through Georgia. All for the Union and liberty.
Was he unprincipled? Only if America itself is unprincipled. He called the American 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.
That’s what the Calhounites were fighting against, and what Lincoln fought for.
Calhoun explicitly rejected the Declaration. He and his followers called it a ‘self-evident lie.’
It is impossible to hold simultaneously that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘all men are not created equal,’ in the sense that ‘some men are entitled to rule other men without their consent.’
As we have seen, Confederate Vice President Stephens, in his inaugural address in February 1861, chose the latter proposition. The Founders had simply been wrong, he argued. They were mistaken to hold that ‘all men are 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 idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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.
But 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 simply won’t propose the necessary amendment, then the states have a last resort before war: they can convene a convention under Article V 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 must 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 method provided by which a state may peacefully exit.
But also no—for two reasons.
First, a state can always exit with the unanimous consent of all the other states. Nothing in the Constitution prevents this, even if there is no specific provision or mechanism for it. We could confirm this principle either through a formal constitutional amendment or simply by custom and precedent.
Second, there is always the right of revolution. If a state is truly being oppressed, it always has the right to take up arms against tyranny, just as the colonies did at Lexington and Concord. (Individuals have that right, too.)
If states are trapped in the Union against their will, then won’t the inevitable result be tyranny by the federal government? And therefore, won’t affirming a positive-law ‘right’ of unilateral secession actually reduce the need for secession? Won’t it make the Union stronger rather than weaker?
While a creeping federal despotism has certainly appeared and grown over the past century, in the wake of the ‘reforms’ of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, I don’t think the cause of that problem was the lack of a unilateral-secession clause. Nor do I think such a clause would make the Union stronger.
The root problem is the disarrangement of the three branches, in the wake of the revolutions of 1913 and 1937. The ratification of the 16th and 17th Amendments, the weakening of the Senate, the creation of the income tax, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the IRS, and the FBI, the de-monetization of gold and silver coins, etc.—these ‘reforms’ are what has disturbed the equilibrium of the system and spawned federal corruption and mission creep. As a result of these changes, the executive and judicial branches have waxed in power at the expense of the legislative. Washington, D.C., has waxed in power at the expense of the states. Limits on federal power have been trampled. The states have begun to look like mere provinces or administrative districts.
Rather than unilateral state nullification and secession, an alternative and much better safeguard against centralized tyranny is what the Constitution already prescribes: ameliorative legislation, or, if necessary, one or more constitutional amendments. This is not to say that enacting such legislation or amendments is easy. It is obviously very hard. But the evils of unilateral state nullification and secession outweigh any benefits they might offer.
If we are looking for silver bullets, I would suggest two simple constitutional amendments, to wit: 1) A majority of the states may repeal any federal law or regulation. 2) A majority of the states, representing a majority of the U.S. population, is needed for any increase in the national debt. (For more on these and related reform ideas, see my proposed Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life.)
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.
To be fair to him, Calhoun 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 a series of crises, from the Wilmot Proviso to the Compromise of 1850 to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise to Dred Scott. This long 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‘ 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 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 that contest, the 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. Note that the Founders assert the existence of this right without trying to prove 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 one 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 the slaves deserved to be slaves 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, the platform of which promised to prohibit slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico (but not where it already existed) portended a future the South feared: the eventual entry into the Union 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 was a false one, because the authors of this supposed ‘aggression’ were none other than the American People themselves, acting lawfully and peacefully under the Constitution of their own making. Besides, the South could always have tried to reverse the results of 1860 and avert this feared future by winning the next election. Their secession ordinances of 1860 and ’61 were precipitated by the realization that they had lost the moral argument over slavery. To preserve it, they chose to resort to the ready-to-hand Calhounite claims about ‘states’ rights,’ ‘concurrent majorities,’ and the like. When they could no longer win through politics, they opted to win through force. They 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 familiar argument used to justify every 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 the 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 Dred Scott, the Supreme Court 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 many Americans in Lincoln’s time were prejudiced against blacks, viewing them 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 would tolerate its continued existence 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 Dred Scott:
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.