Alexander's Column

The Lincoln Legacy Revisited

Mark Alexander · Feb. 17, 2006

Our national icons are often held in such esteem as to eclipse the fact they were fallible – as all men are. For this reason, it is important that we occasion to look with a critical eye upon these larger-than-life figures. Cultural myth, after all, can obscure historical truth.

For context on the Second American Revolution, the War Between the States, consider three quotes on the subject of revolution.

  1. In retrospect on the American Revolution, John Quincy Adams wrote, “But the indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the RIGHT, but in the HEART. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it!) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other, when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interests shall fester into hatred, the bonds of political association – will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship with each other than to be held together by constraint. Then will be the time for reverting to the precedents which occurred at the formation and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect Union, by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the center.” –John Quincy Adams (40th anniversary of the ratification of our Constitution, New York Historical Society, 1839, just two decades before the commencement of hostilities between the states.)

  2. Looking forward, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801)

  3. Abraham Lincoln agreed: “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. This is a most valuable and most sacred right - a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so many of the territory as they inhabit.” (January 12, 1848, in a speech criticizing Polk’s handling of the Mexican War)

In keeping with our motto, Veritas Vos Liberabit (“the truth shall set you free”), and our mission, to remain true to the word of our nation’s principal legal compact, our Constitution, The Patriot has challenged the actions of political icons where their popular persona does not reconcile with the historical record. It is in this spirit that we revisit Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship status, not just the man credited with preserving the Union, emancipating slaves and founding the Republican Party, but the man who presided over the most grievous constitutional contravention in American history.

Needless to say, when one dares tread upon the record of such an iconic figure as Lincoln, one risks all manner of ridicule from his devoted loyalists. That notwithstanding, Patriots should be willing to look at Lincoln’s whole record, though it may not please our sentiments or comport with the common folklore of most history books. Of note, challenging Lincoln’s record is NOT tantamount to suggesting that Southern secessionists were justified in their actions or right to secede, or that slavery was anything but an evil, impious and grotesque practice. Nor does this challenge suggest Lincoln was “all bad” – it merely suggests, contrary to the popular record, that Lincoln was not “all good.”

On our “About The Patriot” page, we assert that “the constitutional federalism envisioned by our Founders and outlined by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights was grossly violated” by our 16th President – and many of his successors. We are sometimes asked why we head that list of violators with Lincoln. It is fitting, then, in this week when the nation recognizes the anniversary of his birth, that we answer this question – albeit at great peril to the sensibilities of some of our friends and colleagues.

The first of Lincoln’s two most oft-noted achievements was the preservation of the Union. It is, we believe, a blessing that we are still the USA, one nation united, though some historians argue eloquently that Southern states would likely have reunited with Northern states before the end of the 19th century, had Lincoln allowed for a peaceful and constitutionally accorded secession. Furthermore, under this reunification model, the constitutional order of the republic would have remained largely intact.

The Founding Fathers established the Constitutional Union as a voluntary agreement among the several states, subordinate to The Declaration of Independence, which never mentions the nation as a singular entity, but instead repeatedly references the states as sovereign bodies, unanimously asserting their independence. To that end, our Constitution’s author, James Madison, in a letter (1825) to our Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, asserted, “On the distinctive principles of the Government … of the U. States, the best guides are to be found in … The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental Act of Union of these States.”

The states, in ratifying the Constitution, established the federal government as their agent – not the other way around. At Virginia’s ratification convention, for example, the delegates affirmed “that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to injury or oppression.” Were this not true, the federal government would not have been established as federal, but instead a national, unitary and unlimited authority. Notably, and in large measure as a consequence of the War between the States, the “federal” government has grown to become an all-but unitary and unlimited authority.

Our Founders upheld the individual sovereignty of the states, even though the wisdom of secessionist movements was a source of great tension and debate from the day the Constitution was ratified. Tellingly, Hamilton, the greatest proponent of centralization among the Founders, noted in Federalist No. 81 that waging war against the states “would be altogether forced and unwarranted.” At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton argued, “Can any reasonable man be well disposed toward a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself?”

Yet Lincoln threatened the use of force to maintain the Union in his First Inaugural Address, saying, “In [preserving the Union] there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.”

Lincoln may have preserved the Union geographically (at great cost to the Constitution), but politically and philosophically, the concept of a voluntary union was shredded by sword, rifle and cannon.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln employed lofty rhetoric to conceal the truth of our nation’s most costly war – a war that resulted in the deaths of some 600,000 Americans and the severe disabling of over 400,000 more. He claimed to be fighting so 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.” In fact, Lincoln was ensuring just the opposite by waging an appallingly bloody war while ignoring calls for negotiated peace. It was the “rebels” who were intent on self-government, and it was Lincoln who rejected their right to that end, despite our Founders’ clear admonition to the contrary in the Declaration.

Moreover, had Lincoln’s actions been subjected to the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention (the first being codified in 1864), he and his principal military commanders, Gen. William T. Sherman heading the list, would have been tried for war crimes. This included waging “total war” against not just combatants, but the entire civilian population. It is estimated that Sherman’s march to the sea was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. (Continuing their legacy, after the war, Sherman and Gen. Philip Sheridan waged unprecedented genocide against Native Americans.)

“Reconstruction” followed the war, and with it an additional period of Southern probation, plunder and misery, leading General Robert E. Lee to conclude, “If I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”

The second of Lincoln’s two most oft-noted achievements was ending the abomination of slavery. It has come to be understood that this calamitous war was the necessary cost of ridding our nation of slavery, yet no other nation at the time required war to do so. In fact, the cost of the war itself would have more than paid for compensatory emancipation, giving each slave 40 acres and a mule – all without bloodshed.

However, Lincoln’s own words undermine his hallowed status as the Great Emancipator. For example, in his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln argued: “I will say then that 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 – that 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; and I will say in addition to this that 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. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Originally, of course, the War between the States was not predicated on freeing slaves, but preserving the Union – or, as the South saw it, preserving the sovereignty of the several states.

States’ rights are most aptly understood through the words and actions of Gen. Lee, who detested slavery and opposed secession. In 1860, however, Gen. Lee declined Lincoln’s request that he take command of the Army of the Potomac, saying that his first allegiance was to his home state of Virginia: “I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and save in defense of my native state…I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.” He would, soon thereafter, take command of the Army of Northern Virginia, rallying his officers with these words: “Let each man resolve to be victorious, and that the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall find him a defender.”

As for delivering slaves from bondage, it was two years after the commencement of hostilities that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – to protests from free laborers in the North, who didn’t want emancipated slaves migrating north and competing for their jobs.

In truth, not a single slave was emancipated by the stroke of Lincoln’s pen. Slaves were “freed” in Confederate states, excluding the territory occupied by the federal army. Slaves in Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland were also left in bondage. With his Proclamation, Lincoln succeeded in politicizing the issue and short-circuiting the moral solution to slavery, thus leaving the scourge of racial inequality to fester to this day – in every state of the Union. In fact, there is evidence now of more ethnic tension in Boston than in Birmingham, in Los Angeles than in Atlanta and in Chicago than in Charleston.

Further, little reported and lightly regarded in our history books is the way Lincoln abused and discarded the individual rights of Northern citizens. Tens of thousands of citizens were imprisoned (most without trial) for political opposition, or “treason,” and their property confiscated. Habeas corpus and, in effect, the entire Bill of Rights were suspended.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence details remarkably similar abuses by King George to those committed by Lincoln: the “Military [became] independent of and superior to the Civil power”; he imposed taxes without consent; citizens were deprived “in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury”; state legislatures were suspended in order to prevent more secessions; he “plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people…scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

Chief among the spoils of victory is the privilege of writing the history. Thus, the Lincoln most Americans know is the one who preserved the Union, freed the slaves and founded the Republican Party. A more thorough and dispassionate reading of history, however, reveals that these were silver linings within a dark cloud of constitutional abuse.

Finally, while the War between the States concluded in 1865, the battle for states’ rights – the struggle to restore constitutional federalism – remains spirited, particularly in the ranks of our Patriot readers.

Quote of the week…

“Stripped of all its covering, the naked question is, whether ours is a federal or consolidated government; a constitutional or absolute one; a government resting solidly on the basis of the sovereignty of the States, or on the unrestrained will of a majority; a form of government, as in all other unlimited ones, in which injustice, violence, and force must ultimately prevail.” –South Carolina Senator John Calhoun, 1831

On cross-examination…

“The War between the States…produced the foundation for the kind of government we have today: consolidated and absolute, based on the unrestrained will of the majority, with force, threats, and intimidation being the order of the day. Today’s federal government is considerably at odds with that envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. … [The War] also laid to rest the great principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that ‘Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’.” –Walter Williams