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Thursday, August 29, 2019



     Ten years ago I wrote a blog post titled, “Was Preservation of the Union a Moral Issue?” I knew that slavery was the gigantic moral issue that the war resolved. I knew, of course, that although slavery had been ended, the great issue of race was not at all solved.

     Now, I have come across a book that makes the same point — that preservation of the Union was, for Lincoln — a moral cause worthy of fighting the Civil War. 

     Modern historians take the position that the trigger for the Civil War had been a political dispute about power and sectionalism, about states rights versus centralized government, about economic and social differences between North and South, about the balance of power in Congress, about territorial expansion. But, they insist that these issues would not have justified the terrible carnage of the war; there had to be a higher, nobler cause to fight and die for. That had to be the fight to free millions of enslaved human beings. Thus, only until the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) did the war find its true moral cause.

     Of course, that seemed to me to be obvious. And yet, something nagged at me. Abraham Lincoln had a long history of opposing the institution of slavery and he had foreseen it as the issue that divided North from South. In his debates with Douglas, he famously warned that the divided house could not long endure “half slave and half free,” that it must some day become all one or all the other.

     But when he became president he, in his inaugural address, promised that he would not interfere with the status quo, including a vow to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law that the Supreme Court had upheld in the notorious Dred Scott decision. Then, when “secession fever” struck, he said that even if the price for preserving the union was perpetual continuation of slavery, he would favor it.

     In fact, even after he was persuaded to issue the proclamation to free slaves, he did it for the purpose of prosecuting the war: it purported to declare free only those slaves in the rebelling states, not those in the slave states that had remained in the union — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and the newly recognized West Virginia.  

     So, I wondered, how could Lincoln, the deepest thinker of his age, think that preserving the union was so crucial? He must have felt that preservation of the union was a “moral” imperative.


     The first dictionary definition of the word “moral” is “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.”

     What was the great principle involved in preserving the Union?

     At the time I wrote the blog, I surmised that Lincoln must have believed that if the states were allowed to break the union apart, it would lead to a greater calamity than that of the Civil War itself.
     What could be worse than civil war? I looked at a map. In 1861 the North American continent contained Canada, Mexico, and the USA. The 13 southern states left the Union over the crisis about the territories: would new states be slave or free?

     Thus, the newly independent nation of Confederate States (CSA) would surely wish to expand into the western territories. So would the US. The CSA was based on a “sovereign” state’s right to secede. Therefore, nothing would prevent the CSA to disintegrate when another “critical” issue arose. And there might well be European powers to seek a foothold on the continent now that the USA was so weakened. Mormons might seek with their territory to be an independent nation.
     Certainly there would be conflicts, border disputes, probably many small and maybe larger wars – to defend or to expand territory. (Remember “bleeding Kansas,” the newspapers’ title for the misery that followed the “popular sovereignty” law.)

     Lincoln knew Europe’s history: continual wars among neighbors, empires challenging each other, eventual militarism, despotism, Napoleons trying to unify states by force.

     I found evidence for this awareness in the then popular notion of “Manifest Destiny.” In the 19th Century, white Christian and European ancestry was presumed to be superior to any other race, culture, or people — the only race worthy of dominance on the continent.

     It justified for many the expulsion of native tribes from lands that the “pioneers” wanted. It supported a vision of a united continent. (Ambitions in Canada were thwarted only by Great Britain’s power, but weaker Mexico was forced by war to cede great chunks of its empire to ours: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.)

     I found further evidence of Lincoln’s understanding and acceptance of this idea in the fact of his western pioneer roots, his legal history defending the business of the frontier, including the railroads; and during his presidency, his support for the continental railroad, the homestead acts, the land grant colleges of the western states; and his avowed dream that after his terms he would take Mary to see California.

     The century following the re-union after 1865 was the most prosperous era for the nation. While Europe continued to struggle with dictators and wars (two of which we were forced to enter in order to secure world peace) we remained relatively untouched by these wars. The continental US escaped the devastation that most of the rest of the world suffered in the 20th century and we emerged the most powerful and prosperous nation in history.

     We also preserved – for the most part – the nature of our form of government; whether called a republic or a democracy, whatever the issues that divided us from then on, we  never resorted to dictatorship, monarchy, or anarchy.

     There were other prophetic words from Lincoln – these in the address he gave in December, 1863, at the cemetery for the soldiers who fell at Gettysburg. They died, he said, to give the nation “a new birth of freedom” and that government of, by and for “the people” would survive.

     By “a new birth of freedom” Lincoln certainly was referring to the end of slavery, and the people’s government he thought worthy of fighting for was certainly the republican democratic one.

     Now, ten years later, I began to read another of the many books I have read about the war and about Lincoln. The book is “President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman” by William Lee Miller. (This book was published in 2008, but I didn’t know about it when I wrote my blog post. Miller died in 2012. He was a historian and college professor who specialized in issues of ethics and morality, from a religious and historical perspective.)

     In that book, I found many quotes that support my thesis, but for a subtly different rationale far more articulate.

     As early as July 4, 1861, Lincoln in his State of the Union message to Congress, explaining the causes of the war that had begun in April, expressed his motives:

     “I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government if they choose.”

     “[T]he real question involved . . . was whether a free and representative government had the right and power to protect and maintain itself. Admit the right of a minority to secede at will, and the occasion for such secession would almost as likely be any other as the slavery question.”

     “[This issue] 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.”

     “Can ‘discontented individuals,’ too few in numbers to control administration . . . break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth?”

     Lincoln was, by education and inclination, a lawyer. He believed in the rule of law, its spirit and letters. His speeches read like oral arguments or written briefs. They use the form lawyers are still taught to follow: State the cause (the issues), give the evidence for and against the proposition, take a side and explain the rationale for the choice.

     In his July 4, 1861 message (delivered in writing rather than orally as was the tradition then) Lincoln first explained his (“the executive”) actions taken while Congress was in recess. He had kept his inaugural promise to not assail the seceding states, but when South Carolina rebels assaulted Fort Sumter (and federal property in other states was seized), he was forced to fight by his oath of office.

     Lincoln observed that he had taken an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the constitution.” This presidential oath that is specified in the constitution is more specific than the oath administered to other federal employees (“I will support and defend....”). By adding the words “preserve” and “protect,” the document gives the president a special duty as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a great responsibility toward the Constitution. 

     Secession is by its nature, he argued, unconstitutional. Lincoln recited history to show that the states were not “sovereign,” but only existed as part of the United States. Before that, they all were English colonies. (The only state that had been “sovereign” was Texas, for the brief time it declared a republic until it begged for admission into the union as a state.) Thus, the entire basis of the notion of “States rights” as support for secession is a false pretext.

     Lincoln next addressed the Jeffersonian notion expressed in the Declaration of Independence that justified the Revolutionary War against England. Reciting the basis of the current dispute, Lincoln argued that the complaints did not rise to the level that justified revolution. They had been subjects of negotiation, compromise, and debate since the founding, and were indeed included in the Constitution — by insuring checks and balances of branches, by giving states equal representation in the Senate (and by going to the extraordinary and outrageous length of giving the slave states added votes for those human males among their population who had no right to vote because they were deemed to be “property”).

     As Miller puts it:

     “Republican government — democracy, we say now — requires a tacit understanding between majorities and minorities. Majorities rightly prevail, but they respect the liberty of minorities to agitate to try to replace them; minorities have the right to express and organize in behalf of their view, but when the votes are counted, they must acquiesce. That did not happen in this case, and the implication was immense. 
     “From the start, Lincoln saw a sweeping, drastic, universal consequence to this assault upon government in the United States. This American case presented the universal issue: 

Was there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness? 

Could such a government be maintained against a ‘formidable’ attempt to overthrow it from within? 

Could it demonstrate to all the world that such a government could have the strength to prevent a successful appeal from ballots back to bullets?

     “Put negatively, defending such a government against destruction, for the whole family of man and for the ‘vast future also,’ was the moral purpose of Lincoln’s war.”