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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.”

April 13, 2020:

Recently, I found still more support for these ideas in two books by noted historians Joseph J. Ellis and H. W. Brands. Ellis’s “The Quartet” (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), is devoted to Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Jay, the four Founding Fathers who were most responsible for the Constitution, the document that saved the republic from an early death. "Heirs of the Founders" by H.W. Brand (Knopf Doubleday), follows the next generation of leaders, including Calhoun, Clay and Webster. [All quotes are from these books.] 

The new nation was on the verge of collapse because the Articles of Confederation had created a federal government that was too weak to keep the states together. 

Washington, the hero of the war for independence, clearly grasped the central idea: namely, that the American Revolution had happened at a truly pivotal moment in history: It provided Americans with an unprecedented opportunity to become the world’s first successful republic. 

After Independence, it soon became clear to Washington, and a few others, that there was a fundamental flaw in the new nation. The fact was that the Articles of Confederation had not created a united  nation. The 13 colonies that had joined together to fight the British insisted on maintaining their sovereign status. After declaring themselves United, the States, fearful of tyrannical rule, denied real power to a central government, even a democratic one.  

Washington saw clearly that the weakness this caused would be fatal to the dream that he and other founding fathers had, that they could “construct a society according to political principles that maximized the prospects for personal freedom and happiness more fully than ever before.” 

He understood that the time in history was ripe for this experiment in democratic republicanism, that is, a nation in which the people ruled themselves without a monarch or aristocracy. 

He also understood that if the states refused to yield power to a central authority - that is, with the power to tax, to legislate, to settle disputes, to make treaties, and to defend with an army and navy, then it would soon fall apart and fall prey to European states that craved an empire in the new world. 

Washington foresaw that “the Articles were a recipe for anarchy in postwar America, destined to dissolve his legacy of American independence into a confused constellation of at best regional sovereignties, vulnerable to the predatory plans of hovering European powers.” 

As early as 1783, he had expressed his fear that the promised future of a continental nation would be thwarted by these events. “…[H]is expansive vision, which eventually came to be called Manifest Destiny, was continental in scale.” 

He hoped that the dream of western expansion was what would unite the states, or rather re-unite them after most had begun to abandon the idea of unity as soon as independence was won. 

Once the common goal of independence had been achieved, the fractures between states and between northern and southern sections widened. South Carolina objected to Vermont’s entry as a state because it would weaken the South vis-à-vis the New England. 

Washington was not alone in this realization. His wartime deputy, the young genius, Alexander Hamilton, had the same vision. Even during the war, foreseeing a post-war nation, Hamilton wrote a series of essays titled, “The Continentalist,” arguing that a strong central government was needed to insure westward expansion, with its promise of freedom, upward mobility, and wealth. 

The core mistake was to vest sovereignty in the states rather than in a federal government empowered to oversee the economy, including collecting taxes and regulating commerce, and to manage the inevitable expansion of a continental empire. As Hamilton put it, “Americans needed to think continentally.”

Another American leader saw it, too. John Jay, in 1782 was in Paris negotiating the end of the war with Britain. Representatives of Spain and France which had supported the war for independence, mostly in order to weaken England, were there to mediate. One issue was where to define the borders of American vs. British territory on the American continent. Jay forcefully argued to draw the western line at the Mississippi River, which at the time was far further west than any state’s border. In doing so, he was challenging not just England’s claims, but also those of Spain and France. The English agreed to the boundaries largely to weaken Spain and France. 

As signed, it was widely seen as a major victory for the new nation. It doubled its territory, making it larger than any of the three European nations involved. Smart Europeans foresaw that it laid the foundation for an American Empire, one with nearly unlimited resources. 

Thomas Jefferson also foresaw the inevitability of westward expansion. But contrary to the notions of Washington, Hamilton, and Jay, he wanted government, especially a federal government, to stay out of the way. He thought that, left alone, the free market would solve any problems. 

“None other than George Washington was the first to sound the warning. ‘To suffer a wide extended country to be overrun with Land Jobbers, Speculators, Monopolizers, or even with scatter’d settiers,’ Washington declared, ‘is, in my opinion inconsistent with the wisdom and policy which our true interest dictates.’ A policy of unregulated ‘diffusion’ would be sure to generate Indian wars up and down the frontier, the kind of legal confusion over land patents that had already produced vigilante violence in Kentucky, and the likelihood that some settlers would move so far west that they would repudiate their American citizenship and set up independent states or seek support from foreign powers like Spain or Great Britain.”

This argument persuaded Jefferson to go along with the Ordinances of 1785 and 1786 that strove to protect the western lands from unbridled exploitation. The problem was that the Confederation Congress had little power to enforce its laws. 

“Unless there was a viable American nation-state to join, Washington worried that the western territories would drift into the orbit of lurking European powers or go off on their own to form independent states. Washington’s great fear was that North America would become a version of Europe, a collection of coexistent sovereignties rather than a coherent nation of its own. All the evidence seemed to support the conclusion that the very term United States was becoming a preposterous illusion.”

“[The] apocalyptic scenario was anarchy, the complete collapse of the confederation leading to civil wars between the states and predatory intrusions by European powers, chiefly Great Britain and Spain, eager to carve up the North American continent in the conventional imperialistic European mode. The more realistic scenario was dissolution into two or three regional confederacies that created an American version of Europe. New England would become like Scandinavia, the middle states like western Europe, the states south of the Potomac like the Mediterranean countries.

In fact, each time there was a dispute among the states, voices were raised – in the press – that urged disunion, or withdrawal of a section of states that had more common interests than those in a foreign section. 

Although they succeeded in persuading the states to send delegates to the Constitutional convention in the summer of 1787, the document it produced didn’t completely solve the problems. It was a compromise, in which the states, subject to stringent check and balances, surrendered any claims of sovereignty to the federal system - for the greater good. As the Preamble says:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Preamble was written by Gouverneur Morris as head of the Committee on Style and Arrangement, that had been appointed to organize the final document. Significantly, the first draft of the first sentence was much different:

“’We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island…’ and then down the Atlantic coast on a state-by-state basis. Morris single-handedly chose to change that to ‘We the People of the United States.’ 

“This was not just a stylistic revision, for it imposed, at least verbally, a crucial and clear presumption that the rest of the document was designed to finesse: namely, that the newly created government operated directly on the whole American citizenry, not indirectly through the states.”

The Constitution, for all its defects, did not include any provision for secession of any of the states or dissolution of the whole. Between 1787 and 1861, there had been several crises in which the specter of secession had been raised, not just in the press, or rabble rousing speeches in state legislatures, but in the U.S. Senate and House as well. 

The disruption of trade caused by the War of 1812, led some New England leaders to the Hartford Convention, in which some firebrands murmured threats of secession. Before the Missouri Compromise in 1820, southerners again raised the specter of secession on the issue of westward expansion. The delicate balance of power in the Congress was maintained by Maine / Missouri as new states. But it was the future of the west that loomed dangerously. 

In 1830 it was the issue of tariffs that led to a severe crisis. South Carolina, led by VP John Calhoun, asserted the right to “nullify” the federal law. Calhoun’s rep, Sen. Robert Hayne, made a stirring speech asserting state’s rights, arguing that the Constitution was a creation of sovereign states but that “liberty” was stronger than “union.” 

Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts responded with a powerful rebuttal. He argued that without the Constitution was created “by the People” not the states. (“Heirs of the Founders”), quoting Webster’s speech:

“’If the government of the United States be the agent of the state governments, then they may control it, provided they can agree in the manner of controlling it. If it be the agent of the people, then the people alone can control it, restrain it, modify, or reform it.’ 

“Webster took his stand with the people. ‘It is, sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government; made for the people; made by the people; and answerable to the people.’ 

“The people of America had created the national government and made it sovereign. ‘The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law. We must either admit the proposition, or dispute their authority.’” 

Webster cited the sad history of the Articles of Confederation, and the reasons why the strong “general government” was needed. The federal judiciary, not any of the states, had the power to declare a law unconstitutional. Moreover, prosperity and liberty depended on the unity of the states, that there could be no individual liberty without a strong union. Daniel Webster had deterred it by his oratory: “liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”

Lincoln knew his history, and could easily foresee the future. His arguments against the right of the Southern states to secede had clear precedents and an unimpeachable rationale. He foresaw what a tragedy the dissolution of the Union would be for the future of continent. It was not merely a political or economic crisis, but a struggle for the hope of humankind, that a government of, by and for the People could survive internal strife.