Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

What You Need to Know About Lincoln 150 Years After the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday was a sacred day according to the cult calendar of our American Civil Religion. We remembered the famous re-founding speech of our unitary-state’s father, President Abraham Lincoln.  One hundred-fifty years ago, Father Abraham, uttered these words:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow— this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us— that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

When this rhetoric from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is ceremoniously read or quoted today, it often prompts tears from Americans who have been socialized in the proper rites of Lincolnian-Americanism via the tax-payer funded catechesis program that we call the public schools. Here I intend no disrespect to the innocent souls who have been duped by a nationalist-oriented establishment; rather, it is with a desire to liberate my fellow citizens from the wiles of manipulation and deceit that I write this essay. For the sake of clarity, I do so in three parts: (1) an analysis of the Gnostic elements in Lincoln and the Northern States during the Civil War; (2) a brief consideration of Lincoln’s many abuses of the rule of law; and (3) a brief summary of other factual and normative issues for relevantly evaluating Lincoln’s legacy.

I. Gnostic Elements in Lincoln and the Northern States During the Civil War:

Proving the existence of Gnostic rhetoric in the Gettysburg Address is actually quite easy and uncontroversial; one simply has to look to the writing of one of Lincoln’s modern day admirers, Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. When turning to Lincoln, Kagan’s factual portrayal (putting aside Kagan’s moralistic advocacy) is largely correct. Kagan views the Lincoln and the Republican North as engaged in radically ideological war policy. Here Kagan is able to find adequate evidence. Two facets of this should be considered: (1) the ideological view of Republican policy-makers about the nature of the United States and the importance of preserving the American union; and (2) the explicit radicalization of the North’s military and war aims during both the war’s later years.

With respect to the first, although many key policymakers during the early years articulated the North’s war aim as preservation of the union, their view of this had a very ideological component. Kagan shows how preserving the “Union—the picture of ‘silver’—was essential to Lincoln’s hopes of the survival of republican government rededicated to the principles of the Declaration.”[1] Kagan further admits that Lincoln’s particular understanding of the Declaration as a foundational document for the United States was radical in comparison with the eighteenth-century understanding of it.

He called on Americans to re-adopt the Declaration of Independence and to rededicate themselves to Jefferson’s Enlightenment conviction that all men are created equal. As Harry Jaffa has noted, he also subtly transformed Jefferson’s original meaning to fit the great struggle of his own day. Jefferson had conceived just government mainly in terms of the relief from oppression. His Declaration has put forth a Lockean justification for American independence: the British Crown and Parliament had forsaken their governing legitimacy by denying Americans their natural rights, and so Americans were justified in waging a revolution for independence to restore those rights. Lincoln, facing very different circumstances in the late 1850s, appealed to natural rights to justify a second American revolution,” this time not against an imperial master but against the domestic institution of slavery. He turned Jefferson’s negative minimal requirement of government, that it must not deprive citizens of their natural rights, into a positive requirement that government must actively defend and promote those rights.[2]

Kagan also elaborates upon Lincoln’s radicalization of the Declaration through citing the work of John Patrick Diggins:

Lincoln set forth the Declaration’s doctrine of equality as a moral imperative rather than a scientific postulate. The principle of equality enunciated in the Declaration, Lincoln declared, was to be continually looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and therefore constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of color everywhere.Borrowing from the religious perfectionism whose spirit had so infused northern thought since the Second Great Awakening, he exhorted: “As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.” He believed in a concept of equality that was as much a duty of the community as a right of the individual and as much the end product of historical striving as a condition preceding history.[3]

In these passages, Kagan argues along with Jaffa (and perhaps Diggins) that Lincoln’s views and goals about the United States in reference to the Declaration were both highly ideological as well as being a radical development upon the Founder’s views of the Declaration. Although we might (and the current author does) take issue with Jaffa’s interpretation of the late eighteenth-century interpretation of the Declaration, this particular instance of Jaffa’s analysis appropriately suggests that Lincoln’s nineteenth-century understanding of the Declaration was significantly radicalized beyond what the Founders had in mind.

Furthermore, Kagan is able to show how Lincoln’s ideological vision was an instance of idealism, which stood in contrast to realism:

In his appeal to a higher morality than the Constitution, Lincoln rejected the doctrine of self-interest as the sole guide to human action and also as the sole guide to national action. It was not enough to pursue the national interest. It was not even enough to pursue the national interest if the nation itself had departed from the principles of the Declaration. What Lincoln hated most about Douglas’ Nebraska Act, he said, was that it assumed there was no right principle of action but self-interest. He and Seward both insisted that the right principle of action was not self-interest but justice—and just was to be found only in the Declaration’s principle of equal rights. Because all men enjoyed equal rights, all men had a duty to defend those rights not only for themselves but for others—even for black slaves. This was a step beyond Locke’s contractual understanding of the relations among citizens and between citizens and their government. It was a call for moral responsibility.[4]

Here we see a portrayal of Lincoln and Seward, the policy-makers, negating self-interest as an appropriate end of policy and advocating the use of policy to pursue abstract concepts like “justice” and the “Declaration’ s principles of equal rights.” In addition to Lincoln’s views about preserving the union with radicalized values of the Declaration in mind, Seward also viewed such preservation of union as both “an end in itself,” as well as “a prerequisite to the national greatness Republicans felt the United [States] was destined to achieve.”[5] According to Kagan, Seward envisioned the United States pursuing “an empire of freedom,” but this “depended on a consolidated, prosperous, continental Union, cleansed of the stain of slavery, which would form the essential base from which America’s global hegemony would emanate.”[6]

As the war continued, however, and the South was initially victorious, Kagan appropriately shows how “Northern war aims took revolutionary and even messianic form when Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation two years into the conflict.”[7] This policy was about both ideology as well as military strategy:

To win the war and make the goals of the war consistent with the principles of the Declaration that he had stated to be the essence of American nationhood, Lincoln freed the slaves. He justified it as a military necessity,” but in striking at slavery he also knew he was striking at the heart of the rebellion,” the underpinning of the southern way of life. After 1862 the northern war aim became not merely the defeat of rebellion. The war for the Union became a war for justice, a moral crusade for liberty.[8]

In addition to new ideologically motivated policies, Lincoln’s rhetoric became increasingly more ideological during the war. Both his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address suggest this. In the former, Lincoln famously both repeated his prior radicalized views about the Declaration of Independence: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . . ” In other words, the American nation began “in liberty” in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, which dedicated America to the telocratic constitutional aim of realizing equality among individuals—i.e., further advancing the implications of our original commitment to “all men” being “created  equal.”

In the sequal passage of the Address, Lincoln draws upon this telocratic view of America’s commitment to equality and freedom to articulate the North’s remaining ideological purpose in fighting the war:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth (Emphasis added).[9]

Here the North’s new ideological war aims are presented as having a transcendent status: not only will the North’s victory preserve the American nation “under God” with its sanctified values of liberty and equality, it will give the nation “a new birth of freedom.” The war’s imminent struggle, which entails death, carnage, and destruction of fortune for the fleeting aims of preserving threatened national glory and/or its political leader’s historical legacy, is now transformed into a Gnostic reach for a historical utopia that entails “a new birth of freedom.”

With respect to his Second Inaugural, Lincoln demonstrates signs of Gnosticism (in the Voegelinian sense) when suggesting that the war and the North’s cause was God’s will. There Lincoln argues that there was some divine purpose—such as a punishment for slavery—for the war to continue:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. . . . With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[10]

Aside from the strangeness of such rhetoric—which attributes the war’s continuance to God—coming from the man whose continued choice and iron determination are, perhaps, the single most determining factors for why the North continued in its crusade against the South, one sees Lincoln’s intimation that the North’s war aim of ending slavery and brutalizing the South into submission is willed by God, presumably for the sake of realizing a new utopia within history marked by equality and freedom. Kagan also recognizes Lincoln’s brutal zealousness:

[Lincoln] did not shrink from the alternative. If God willed that the war must continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop o blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” then Lincoln would devastate the South and its people.[11]

In these and other Lincoln speeches, we see a radicalized conception of American Exceptionalism (how America is distinct and has a special normative purpose within the international world) that becomes the rationalization for United States military and/or foreign policy. One very apparent aspect of this is Lincoln’s continual justification of militarily acting to preserve the “Union” for the sake of America remaining an example to the rest of the world:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[12]

And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretences made in this case, or on any other pretences, or arbitrarily, without any pretence, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?” “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?[13]

The Exceptionalism, however, is something envisioned (but not yet actualized until military victory is finally secured) by Lincoln in the sense that it will be realized when the union becomes fully committed to liberty and equality, and he justifies the North’s war policy as a means of realizing this. He views the North’s war-making as bringing about a “new birth of freedom,” which will be an immanentized eschaton that will at least entail transforming the former Southern States where liberty and equality had previously been truncated. The war is envisioned as an ideological struggle to create a nation of freedom (for all)—i.e., to bring about certain abstract ideals, not practical interests—and, in turn, idealistically exhibit to the world that such a nation is possible and can be preserved.

Why not just view the Civil War, in accordance with Lincoln’s policy positions, as merely a domestic effort (i.e., non-foreign policy effort) to quash a rebellion that threatened the American union and (as Lincoln added later) American values? Although Lincoln framed the war in these terms, there is evidence that he did not really view this to be the case. Bruce Frohnen discusses this in reference to Lincoln’s decision to blockade Southern ports: “In the meantime Lincoln declared a blockade of Southern ports. Normally, blockades were issued only against foreign nations, so Lincoln’s action in effect recognized the South’s separate status from the Union.”[14]

Regardless of how Lincoln really viewed the conflict, independent evidence suggests that the war was actually a battle between two separate American confederations. First, secession was seen by many as a viable constitutional alternative throughout the history of the early republic before the Civil War.[15] Based on this, one can argue that the Southern States had legally left the union and, then, united into a de jure independent confederation. Second, the Southern States had united themselves into a functioning confederation, and they engaged in a united war policy. So, the war was a de facto conflict between two organized and formal republics. Thus, the remaining United States’ (i.e., the Northern State’s) war policy toward the South was actually foreign policy, and Lincoln’s use of ideological justifications was (in contrast to his own assertions) not really about a domestic war; rather, they were arguments for the United States’ war with a politically separate entity—i.e., the Confederate States of America.

The Gnostic and ideological motivations were not confined to policy makers, many within the Northern army and the North also possessed such views about the war. Kagan, for example, cites the findings of James McPherson who studied “the letters of more than six hundred Union soldiers” and showed the following:

[W]hile not all cared about the ideological issues at stake in the war, a substantial number did believe they were fighting for a moral and ideological cause beyond themselves. A good many soldiers shared Lincoln’s conviction [that] the struggle for freedom at home was a struggle for freedom the world over. As they wrote family members back home, “the liberty of the world” has been placed in our hands to defend.” If the North succeeded, “then you may look for European struggles for liberty,” but if it failed, “the onward march of Liberty in the Old World” would be “retarded at least a century.”[16]

In addition to ideological motives of northern troops, Kagan also identifies the deliberate unleashing of Northern brutality as a means of winning the war:

The northern generals who prosecuted the war most effectively, and most ruthlessly, had more understanding of its ideological purposes. Grant, though not a vigorous opponent of slavery, nevertheless perceived thathe was engaged in a people’s war, and that the people as well as the armies of the South must be conquered, before the war would end.” “We are not only fighting hostile armies,” William Tecumseh Sherman declared, “but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as the organized armies.” Sherman was no more opposed to slavery than Grant. But he understood that the South was fighting for a way of life and that people of the South would not surrender until they concluded that the loss of their civilization was preferable to the horrors of war. Therefore the North must make the war so terrible. . .[and] make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.”[17]

For all the harshness and probable inhumanity of this Northern war-making, such generals were means to an end. If the generals were culpable, the same (or even a much greater degree of) blame is due to the one who authorized and willed this for his publicly articulated ideological ends (regardless of whether he was personally a true believer or merely employed his ideological rhetoric to advance an ulterior political-economic agenda). As Kagan notes, “Grant and Sherman did make the war terrible, with Lincoln’s full support.”[18]

Northern ideology and Gnosticism can also be seen within the cultural elements that arose during the conflict. One prominent example of this was the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was written by Julia Ward Howe at the start of the war in 1861:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,
His day is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His Judgement Seat.
Oh! Be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant, my feet
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

These lyrics and the ideology that underlies them are instances of the pathology of modern thought, which Eric Voegelin terms Gnosticism. In his The New Science of Politics, Voegelin argues that “Gnosticism” entails “an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton” or seeking to realize a perfection in the immanent/temporal world that is akin to the transcendent perfection of the Christian eschaton (i.e., the end time that includes “the Last Judgment and the advent of the eternal realm in the beyond.”). Rather than continuing to engage in the relatively difficult process of finding spiritual fulfillment through the traditional Christian Church of the West that, through the influence of Augustine, understood “there would be no divinization of society beyond the pneumatic presence of Christ in his Church,” modern Western man engages in “Gnostic speculation” that prompts him towards (in Voegelin’s words) “the more appealing, more tangible, and, above all, so much easier creation of the terrestrial paradise.” Ms. Howe and the Northern Mindset’s attempt to sacrificially realize “freedom” as a part of God’s “coming” (i.e., the eschaton) is a religious/spiritual search for realizing the “infinite” in the immanent—i.e., attempting to immanentize a perfection that (according to Voegelin) Augustinian Christianity suggests can only be realized in the transcendent realm.[20]

Given this ideological and Gnostic interpretation of the war among major players in the victorious side, it is not surprising to see the war continue its ideological crusade after the South’s surrender and during the so-called Reconstruction period.  Kagan ascertains all of this very well:

The Civil War was America’s first experiment ideological conquest, therefore, and what followed was America’s first experiment in nation building.”. . . To the North, the defeated South was, in the argot of the twentieth century, an underdeveloped nation. Its underdevelopment, its backwardness, exemplified by [the] archaic institution of slavery, many northerners believed, had been responsible for the horrendous conflict that had destroyed the entire nation. Now the North, having subdued the rebellion and punished its leaders, had the task not only of standing the conquered land back on its feet, but of curing it of the evils that had led to war, which in turn meant dragging it forcibly into the modern world. As James Russell Lowell poetically put it in his series The Biglow Papers, “Make ‘em Amerikin, an’ they’ll begin To love their country ez they loved their sin; Let ‘em stay Southun, an’ you’ve kep’ a sore Ready to fester ez it done afore.”[21]

Kagan further shows this Northern sense of sectional superiority and ideological desire to change the South in the sequel passage:

Conquest of the South gave northerners the opportunity—or, depending on one’s point of view, saddled it with the burden—of accomplishing the task that had eluded northern statesmen in the antebellum years. Why cannot the best civilization be extended over the whole country,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had asked in 1862, since the disorder of the less-civilized portion menaces the existence of the country?” After the war ended, this remained the fundamental question: how to re-create the South in the North’s image? [22]

II. President Lincoln’s Disrespect for the Rule of Law:

Given his ideological, telocratic tendencies (or at least his willingness to employ ideology and telocracy as a public relations technique for advancing his policies) and the fact that ideology and telocracy are often at cross purposes with a nomocratic respect for legal processes and constraints on power, it is not surprising that Lincoln also refused to operate within bounds of constitutional law and its limits on federal and presidential power. Much could be said here, but I will limit it to a brief summary of several points.

(1)      He directed federal troops to put down a rebellion in the Southern States, and this violated Article IV of the Constitution, which (as is abundantly clear from the Constitutional Convention evidence) only allows the Federal Government to send troops into a State for this purpose upon the application of a State’s legislature or of its executive (if the legislature cannot be convened). For more elaboration, see this article:

(2)      Lincoln’s policy to force Southern re-unification violated the Framers’ (and State Ratifiers’) interpretation that the disobedient States could NOT be militarily forced to comply with the Constitution, assuming (arguendo) that the Southern States were disobedient in electing to secede. His predecessor James Buchanan was quite clear about this:

(3)      Contrary to Lincoln’s own theory that the Confederacy was not a separate nation-state at war with the United States, he ordered a naval blockade against the South even though international law maintained that such a blockade could only be conducted when war existed between two independent nation-states. This was not the only violation of conventional international law regarding warfare; Lincoln also gave his blessing to General Sherman’s scorch-and-burn policies that targeted innocent civilians (in terms of destroying their property, etc.) in order to weaken the Southern people’s support of the Confederate government’s war policies. For more on this, see Eric Posner’s interesting review of Jon Witt’s LINCOLN’S CODE at Slate.

(4)      Lincoln suspended constitutionally protected rights to habeas corpus within the Northern States without first receiving constitutionally requisite Congressional authorization, and he (then) allowed his military generals to systematically jail Northern Democrats (his political opponents) who dared to publicly oppose his war policies.

(5)      Lincoln signed an order to arrest the United State Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roger Taney, after he dared to challenge (in Ex parte Merryman) the constitutionality of Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. See Charles Adams’s interesting account of the historical evidence for this instance of Lincoln’s disregard for the rule of law.

(6)      Furthermore, Lincoln’s position on the Emancipation Proclamation (EP) utterly ignores Professor DeRosa’s (a Nomocracy in Politics contributor) evidence that shows the constitutional problems with the EP: Regardless of the obvious moral problems with slavery, Lincoln as President, who had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, was obligated to act in accordance with fundamental law. If Professor DeRosa is correct, then Lincoln did not do this with respect to the EP.

III. Other Considerations Relevant for Evaluating Lincoln’s Legacy:

Contra Allen Guelzo, Lincoln’s Civil War was a causal precursor to the centralization of political power that we have witnessed in post-bellum America.  Yes, Lincoln did not advocate the imprudent consolidation that began in earnest during the New Deal, but his policy of preventing States from exercising their rights to secession as an ultimate check on federal power cemented a conception of federal supremacy without State recourse (other than through federal courts with a vested interest in upholding federal power) that set in motion a causal chain of events that did realize consolidation: (1) the victory of the Republican-dominated Federal Government in the Civil War gave the Northern plutocracy effective power over the federal union, and this could no longer be effectively challenged via State nullification and interposition; (2) in collapsing the ability to resist the plutocracy at the State level, opponents of plutocracy had to compete for control over the Federal Government because this was the only effective means for initiating their desired reforms; (3) the Democratic Party’s rise to power amidst the Great Depression was the ultimate victory of the anti-plutocracy coalition, which (in turn) began the era of rapid centralization of power to advance its ends.

In a preemptive response to those who would dismiss this perspective with ad hominem derisions, it should be noted that the Nomocracy and Politics contributors and editors who write criticize Lincoln’s and the North’s Civil War policy appropriately separate the important legal and political issues at stake in the Civil War from the relevant moral issue of slavery. The notion that criticism of Lincoln and support of the Southern States’ constitutional argument is tantamount to acceptance of slavery is obviously a reduction absurdum. Slavery was clearly wrong, and we have never said otherwise. Nevertheless, the Southern States had a constitutional right to secede even if it was prompted by a desire to protect an immoral institution. Elsewhere I have shown that secession was a tacit reserved State power within the original 1789 Constitution. All the adults in the room realize how tragic implications sometimes follow from defending the rule of law. Sometimes, for example, a wealthy murderer is acquitted if he can purchase a superior defense team that convinces a jury of reasonable doubt about his crime. Similarly, sometimes a State will employ its reserved powers in a manner that allows injustices to occur within its borders. Woe, however, to the political order that allows such legal processes to be subverted for the sake of realizing normatively just results. This is doubly the case with respect to constitutional law and its legal constraints on political power. When we allow the subversion (for the sake of normative justice) of legal checks on the Federal Government’s powers vis-a-vis the States and/or on the departments of the federal government vis-a-vis one another, the door is widely opened to similar subversion occurring for the sake of advancing unjust ends. Subverting the Constitution for the sake of a moral end is highly imprudent, for this weakens the constraints on federal power and, hence, allows the less-constrained Federal Government to be harnessed in the service of unjust ends.

Finally, as I have written about at greater length elsewhere in these pages, Lincoln and the Republicans did NOT (as one of my recent critics has said) bend “over backwards to accommodate” the Southern States. They rejected the only real basis of compromise with the Southern States in the form of the Crittenden Amendment (i.e., allowing slavery into some of the western territories—even though it was unlikely to actually flourish there), which would precluded the Border States from seceding and likely would have wooed the Deep South back into the union. Eminent historian, Kevin Gutzman, clearly shows the unwillingness on Lincoln’s part to compromise with the South. Moreover, as I have also argued, Lincoln’s unwillingness to make such a compromise likely had more to do with maintaining the Republican Party’s political viability against Northern Democrats than it did about seriously upholding his moral principles:

[1]  Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century , (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2007), 266. Also, I would like to thank Nathan Coleman and Sean Busick for reading an earlier draft of this piece and providing me with helpful insight.

[2] Ibid., 260.

[3] Ibid., 260–261.

[4] Ibid., 261.

[5] Ibid., 266.

[6] Ibid., 264.

[7] Ibid., 266–267.

[8] Ibid., 267.

[9] Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, in The American Nation, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Accessed from on 2010-11-11.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 269.

[12] Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, in The American Nation.

[13] Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861, in The American Nation: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Accessed from on 11/11/2010.

[14] Bruce Frohnen, The American Nation: Primary Sources, Chapter: First Inaugural Address. Accessed from on 11/11/2010.

[15] Evidence for secession being a legal and accepted practice before the Civil War is abundant. Here are a few example considerations, but readers should know that there are many more.  The first pertains to the time that the Constitution was enacted. States like New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island were clearly trying to manage the risk posed by the new federal union. In doing this via contract (i.e., New York’s, Virginia’s, and Rhode Island’s contract with the other States via New York ratifying the Constitution), these states had altered the contract’s terms. They officially and explicitly reserved its secession power in their ratification statements, and, in accepting these states’ ratifications, Congress had officially (albeit, implicitly) accepted this qualification as a term of union. Kevin Gutzman, in Virginia’s American Revolution, discusses how State convention delegates understood such altering of the Constitution in relation to the compact theory. These facts suggest at least three pivotal truths about the United States’ constitutional system: (1) New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island had constitutionally legal reserved powers to secede; (2) all other States probably also had the same reserved power, given that all States had equal reserved powers within the confederation as retainers of sovereignty; and (3) a State’s reserved power to secede was conceived and deemed legitimate by the other States (via their representative, Congress, accepting the ratifications of NY, VA, and RI) at the time when they were enacting the Constitution. The last of point, in turn, suggests that State’s power to secede was part of the original understanding of the Constitution.

Moving beyond the founding period, both Boorstin and Livingston show how prominent leaders during the early nineteenth century accepted (if not embraced) secession. According to Boorstin, the early nineteenth century saw examples of the “imaginative American statesman” who believed that “all North America, following the Latin American example, should form itself into several independent and self-governing nations.” (Daniel Boorstin, The Americans, 270. Also see Livingston, “The Southern Tradition and Limited Government,” 457 and 462. Thanks to Livingston for his article that introduced me to this point in Boorstin’s narrative.) In the 1820s, many “leading Americans—including Albert Gallatin, James Monroe, William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and probably James Madison” shared Thomas Jefferson’s “vision” for “an independent Pacific republic (i.e., an Oregon republic).” (Boorstin, The Americans, 270) Furthermore, as Livingston describes, Jefferson grandly envisioned new and independent western nations spinning off from the United States’ territory across the North American continent: “Jefferson thought that, as Americans went West and formed new states, the same logic of secession and division that had characterized American conduct so far would be carried out on an even larger scale. New Unions of states would be formed which would secede from the mother Union just as the colonies had seceded from the mother empire. Jefferson wrote Joseph Priestly in 1804 that he would welcome a Mississippi Confederacy on the West bank of the Mississippi alongside of the old Atlantic Confederacy. And he imagined that still other Unions of states would form as Americans moved to the Pacific. These would constitute what he called an ‘empire of liberty.’ ‘Free and independent Americans, unconnected with us but by ties of blood and interest, and employing like us the rights of self-government.’” (Livingston, “The Southern Tradition and Limited Government,” Modern Age, 2008, 457)  Such a view of the legitimacy of secession is no doubt surprising for contemporary Americans, but it was welcomed by the above-mentioned Americans in an earlier period (Note: Livingston also develops an excellent account of the geographically diverse American states that have engaged (or come close to engaging) in interposition, nullification, and/or secession. His point is that this tradition is not limited to just antebellum Southerners. It has been embraced by various Americans and regions, especially before the Civil War. See Livingston, “The Southern Tradition and Limited Government”, 452–62).

[16] Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 267.

[17] Ibid., 268–269.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” prepared by Benjamin R. Tubb, The Music of the Civil War, Civil War Preservation Trust. Accessed from, on 11/11/2010.

[20] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 107–132.

[21] Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 270.

[22] Ibid.

14 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Lincoln 150 Years After the Gettysburg Address”

  1. bobcheeks

    Bravo, Peter!

    This is the finest analysis of the singular pathology that infected the Northern mind and soul during and after the ‘late unpleasantness.’ I appreciate, even more, since reading this piece, the great loss of founding principles that was the result of Lincoln’s immoral and illegal actions.

    • gabe


      Gee. if you read the next essay, (Three Amigos) you can be even more appreciative as it appears that the “loss of founding principles” seemed to have occurred somewhat earlier in time. I believe the author says “and lincoln was not even born” at the time.
      Apparently, we have been w/o principles for a rather long while, wouldn’t you say?

      take care

  2. bobcheeks


    Yes, there are any number of examples where ‘consolidators’ did injury to the founding principles. However, Peter’s essay clearly illustrates the unique, obscene and perverse philosophy embraced by Lincoln, the ‘eastern monied interests,’ and the Republican Party, that continues to this day.

    • gabe


      You may be stuck in the last century (I don’t mean that as an insult). The fact is that it is the Democrat Party that obtains the majority of Wall Street campaign contributions; that ALL of the wealthiest counties in the US vote, and contribute to, Democrat party; in fact, the Dems have truly become the party of crony capitalism. The Repubs role as the sole waterboy for business is long since over.
      So let’ get current – Dems are even worse than old Repubs.

  3. bobcheeks

    Actually Gabe, it’s worse then that. IMO, the Democrat Party has taken Peter’s gnostic example to certain extreme’s where, for instance, the slaughter of the innocents is an horrific example of mocking God’s order (in a gnostic sense) and demands of its candidates and more faithful followers a strict adherence to their lust for the blood of babies. Further, I have no doubt they intend to implement a program that will facilitate the extermination of the unworthy elderly.

    As you know I have a separate critique of the Rino/Neo GOP. I know Peter’s critique of Lincoln bothers some folks but the fact is, we must seek the truth of our history and culture, if we intend to restore liberty.

  4. John E. Jenkins

    Peter, this is a very, very, unique presentation of a series of events in our history, and how it has been duplicity used by incumbent officers of our government. Yet, I do have a problem with this particular sentence: “Nevertheless, the Southern States had a constitutional right to secede even if it was prompted by a desire to protect an immoral institution.” The ending of this sentence, strikes me as not applicable to an understandable argument of secession. I believe secession must always take place to protect – a MORAL institution.
    Personally, I would like to see all of the States attempt to secede from the present state of the federal bastion – the Judiciary, the Executive branch, and the present democratically controlled Congress. Not because I am an avowed Republican – I believe in the States as Republics. I consider myself as an historical advocate of our nation’s founding – and the great wisdom of the men who found it necessary to (even) alter their desired temperament’s – to make a nation — the “Rule of Law”, and ‘NOT of men’, — and the requisite BOR. The federal branches have encroached — to a combined finality — of usurpation of States rights, and the religious, sovereign, heritage of the people – in this present age.
    Respectfully, John

    • Peter Haworth


      Thank you for the kind words about my piece, and I appreciate your qualified critique. Aside from the constitutional issues about secession, the philosophical problem with not allowing this ultimate check on centralized power is that the federal union becomes vulnerable to precisely the problem that we have now and that you seem to lament. One has to rigorously guard the power of a state to legally defend its constitutionally reserved powers through mechanisms like interposition, nullification, and/or secession (i.e., mechanisms that the states can control, as opposed to those that the center controls like the federal courts) OR the center will encroach if and when the political will of a national majority allows for this. Such rigorous protection of the states’ resistance-powers must extend to areas where the states desire to protect bad (and possibly immoral) laws; otherwise, precedents will be set allowing the center to run roughshod over good (moral) state laws if and when a majority desires this. If the federal union cannot tolerate states exercising their constitutionally reserved police powers in ways that seem morally odious in one instance, then be prepared for a future where changing demographics allows for intolerant national majorities toward state laws that we may view as morally imperative. This point is somewhat similar to why I prefer rigid federalism over flexible subsidiarity:

      Best Regards,

  5. bobcheeks

    The States seceded for several reasons. All dealing with the usurpatons of their Constitutional rights.


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,283 other followers

%d bloggers like this: