Lincoln, Secession and Slavery

Over the last few years I have become obsessed with two questions: Was Abraham Lincoln a good American? And was he conducting his political life and, especially his presidency, in line with the principles of the Declaration of Independence?

When considering Lincoln, there are many statements from him that suggest that he believed what the Declaration of Independence says. But there are also quite a few policies he initiated that suggest that he was all too willing to compromise certain principles. Consider the following pro-Declaration statement from Lincoln: “The expression of that principle [political freedom], in our Declaration of Independence was most happy and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity.”

Yet Lincoln has a blemished record of following the ideal of free government in his political life, as when he issued on May 18, 1864, the following order: “You will take possession by military force of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce … and prohibit any further publication thereof…. You are therefore commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison … the editors, proprietors and publishers of the aforementioned newspapers.”

Granted, during a war one might believe that there is little a president can do but lay aside certain principles, such as the writ of habeas corpus, even the rights of the First Amendment of the Constitution. But perhaps those principles are so basic that they should never be compromised, even during war.

On another point, it looks like Lincoln’s belief in the union went against the Declaration’s view about when people have the right to dissolve their government, a view he himself seems to have held at one time in his political career. In January 1848 he said: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.”

So, what then is so sacred about the American union? Why can’t a substantial segment of the citizenry separate from the country and go its own way? These are important questions when we consider that Lincoln supported secession on flimsier grounds than does the Declaration of Independence. It requires “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” which reduce a government to “absolute despotism,” before secession is justified.

But then there is that undeniable evil of slavery, associated with the Southern rebels, an evil that would appear to make a great deal of difference to whether secession is something justified. And many of the leaders of those rebels made no secret of their support for slavery. They endorsed numerous out-and-out racist ideas, including the idea that blacks were less than human and that whites had not just the authority but even the responsibility to hold them as slaves.

Lincoln, oddly enough, apparently shared some of these views. In his 1860 inaugural address, he said: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Two years later, President Lincoln wrote: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union (Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862).” And in 1858 Lincoln had written: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

Still, when it comes to endorsing southern secession it is not enough to point out Lincoln’s failures in his position on slavery. More important is whether one group may leave a larger group that it had been part of — and in the process take along unwilling third parties. The seceding group definitely does not have that right. Putting it in straightforward terms, yes, a divorce (or, more broadly, the right of peaceful exit from a partnership) may not be denied to anyone unless — and this is a very big “unless” — those wanting to leave intend to take along hostages.

Seceding from the American union could perhaps be morally unobjectionable. It isn’t that significant whether it is legally objectionable because, after all, slavery itself was legally unobjectionable, yet something had to be done about it. And to ask the slaves to wait until the rest of the people slowly undertook to change the Constitution seems obscene.

So, when one considers that the citizens of the union who intended to go their own way were, in effect, kidnapping millions of people — most of whom would rather have stayed with the union that held out some hope for their eventual liberation — the idea of secession no longer seems so innocent. And regardless of Lincoln’s motives — however tyrannical his aspirations or ambitious — when slavery is factored in, it is doubtful that one can justify secession by the southern states.

Indeed, by the terms of the Declaration of Independence, secession is justified because everyone has the right to his or her life and liberty. Leaving a country with all of what belongs to one cannot be deemed in any way morally objectionable. Secession can be a sound idea; it comes under the principle of freedom of association, taken into the sphere of politics. It is a special case of the broader principle of individual sovereignty.

But secession cannot be justified if it is combined with the evil of imposing the act on unwilling third parties, no matter what its ultimate motivation. Thus, however flawed Lincoln was, he was a good American.

Tibor Machan is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.