Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Saturday, July 19, 2003
More on Lincoln
The amazing thing about blogging is that once in a while a total stranger will take the time to respond thoughtfully to something you've dashed off. I recently got such a message from a guy named Rich Rostrom, who gave me some good food for thought.

It seems to me (and I think most Civil War experts would agree)
that you've misunderstood what Lincoln did and why.

To begin with, at no time did Lincoln wage war for the purpose
of freeing slaves, or for any other humanitarian end. He himself
said this many times.

He made war to preserve the Union.

Well, I certainly don't claim to fully understand Lincoln. I'm only now starting to grapple with this history in a serious way, and until I've digested at least the volumes by Lincoln and Calhoun that I've got on my shelf perhaps I should just keep quiet. But this much at least I -had understood--in fact, my earlier post said precisely this: that Lincoln disavowed ending slavery as a justification for war and based it solely on preserving the Union.

Now, you state that the Constitution does not explicitly
address the issue of secession. This is true; but Article Six
does address secession implicitly, in the Supremacy Clause.

The laws made by Congress, as authorized by the Constitution,
are the supreme law of the land, "anything in the laws or
constitution of any state notwithstanding".

If you read that literally, then it doesn't matter whether a
convention in Georgia or Texas has passed a declaration of
secession - the laws of the United States remain in force in
all the states. It was Lincoln's sworn duty to enforce
the laws in every state.

If he had failed to do so, he would have permitted serious
and probably fatal damage to the idea of democratic self-

The Supremacy Clause argument is a fair one. The only textual counter argument I can think of at the moment would be to point to the Ninth and Tenth Amendments and argue that among the rights and powers retained by the people and States must be those fundamental ones invoked in the Declaration of Independence, namely to withdraw consent from a government that has become oppressive and institute a new one. Consent that can't be withdrawn isn't real consent. So one might accept that as long as a state remains in the Union, it is subject to the supremacy of federal law, and yet hold that states can exit the Union if they so choose.

There is, I suppose, the wrinkle that technically the constitution wasn't entered into by the states but by the people, in ratifying conventions organized by state. So arguably to secede you needed not a vote of state legislatures but the holding of deratifying conventions parallel to the earlier ones. Whatever formal niceties we decide to require however, is there any doubt that the popular sentiment for secession was overwhelming?

In his First Inaugural, Lincoln made this point:

If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority
must, or the government must cease. There is no
other alternative; for continuing the government,
is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a
minority, in such case, will secede rather than
acquiesce, they make a precedent which, in turn,
will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their
own will secede from them whenever a majority
refuses to be controlled by such minority. For
instance, why may not any portion of a new
confederacy, a year or two hence, arbitrarily
secede again, precisely as portions of the present
Union now claim to secede from it?


Plainly, the central idea of secession,
is the essence of anarchy. A majority,
held in restraint by constitutional
checks and limitations, and always
changing easily with deliberate changes
of popular opinions and sentiments, is
the only true sovereign of a free
people. Whoever rejects it, does, of
necessity, fly to anarchy or to
despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the
rule of a minority, as a permanent
arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so
that, rejecting the majority principle,
anarchy or despotism in some form is all
that is left.

(Speeches and Letters of Abraham Lincoln :

Lincoln believed he was fighting for something even more
important than the end of slavery (even though he cared
very much about ending slavery): the future of democratic

If the authority of a legitimate democratic government
could be undone at will by any regional majority, then
democracy was doomed to failure.

This is an interesting argument, too. Not sure I buy it, though. It seems to be based on the premise that you can only have functioning democratic government if everyone in sight belongs to the same one. States always think that any lessening of their sphere of power is a step toward inexorable anarchy. I say, what's wrong with a little competition between regional democratic governments? What's wrong with a picture in which, say, 20 states stay in the Union, 12 form a separate Confederacy, a few strike off on their own, and maybe a few break up even further into sovereign city-states? Each of these entities could be thriving democracies. Or some could fail and wind up joining back up with one of the bigger ones. I still don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to try. Now one might posit all kinds of practical difficulties that might need to be worked out. If, for example, these various political entities couldn't get their acts together to cooperate on defense, the region might become vulnerable to foreign invasion. But there's no reason in principle why they couldn't swing that. The Greeks did pretty well against Xerxes, thank you. As long as each of these political entities recognized the others' rights to self-determination, they could compete and get along and form ad hoc conventions as to those matters on which cooperation was important. Why would this necessarily spell the end of democracy? I need to hear more.

Lincoln was determined that the government should be
preserved and all its powers maintained. In this he was
supported by nearly all Americans outside the South,
including many who were not opposed to slavery.

(After Fort Sumter, when Lincoln issued a proclamation
calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down rebellion,
he first asked his old adversary Sen. Stephen Douglas
to look it over. Douglas told Lincoln he shouid call
for _200,000_ men.).

And my understanding is that few people would have been willing to fight a war whose purpose was to end slavery.

Oh, and the story about Lincoln arresting state legislators
in Maryland is neo-Confederate hooey. The Maryland
legislature voted 53-13 against secession in early 1861,
with no Union troops in sight. Later that year, several
Maryland legislators _were_ arrested, but for activities
such as fundraising and recruiting for the Confederacy.

Lincoln (and his subordinates) did many things which
would appall civil libertarians today. Thousands of
people were held prisoner without charges. A newspaper
was suppressed (the Chicago Times). An opposition political
candidate was arrested and thrown out of the country
(Clement Vallandigham).

Not to mention the deliberate civilian destruction inflicted by the Union in the South. Is there any doubt that by today's standards the North was guilty of war crimes?

Considering the gravity and insidious character of the
threat to America today, the restraint shown by Bush
is remarkable. The measures taken by Bush are mild compared
to the actions of such liberal icons as Franklin Roosevelt
and Woodrow Wilson.

No argument there. But believe it or not, my purpose in writing that last post wasn't necessarily to defend Bush. I said we can't hold him in opprobrium without holding Lincoln doubly so. But I take quite seriously the possibility that we should so hold Lincoln. It may be that of the two, Bush is less blameworthy. We should still blame him when necessary, but also keep our perspective.

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