My thoughts on Lincoln

Here, for anyone who’s interested, are my thoughts on the recent Lincoln poll, where, from among the available choices—“Great National Hero,” “Flawed Giant,” “Tyrant,” or “Other”—I voted “Other.”

I think Lincoln was a truly great man, whose grasp of essentials and steadiness of purpose in the most trying crisis of our history enabled him to rescue our country from destruction, much as similar qualities in George Washington enabled him to preserve and form our country through the period of the Revolution and the founding of the government. I think Lincoln fully deserves the words written about him at the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” I do not hold against him the expansion of central government power, the death of hundreds of thousands, and the ruin of the southern society. As regrettable and tragic as those things were, they were the inevitable price of defeating the rebellion and saving the Union—and of saving this continent from what would have been a future of unending strife between two mutually hostile and incompatible social systems. Before we blame Lincoln, we should ask ourselves what we would have done had we been in his position, and in the position of the Northern people at that time. Would we, from repugnance at war and its terrible costs, as General Sherman put it, have let our common country perish in infamy and disgrace? Or would we have said, as Lincoln and the Northern people did say, “Whatever the price to save the Union, it must be paid?” The deaths to which Lincoln sent all those thousands of men were certainly a terrible burden to him, and, I believe, in a kind of Heraclitean balancing, the cause of his own death.

However, I do not entirely admire Lincoln, for two chief reasons. His overall political ideology was too liberal, or rather “neoconservative,” in that he re-articulated America as a universal project devoted to the idea of individual rights and individual advancement, with messianic overtones of spreading this to the entire world. He said in Independence Hall in February 1861 that he would rather be “shot on the spot” than give up the dream that the whole human race would one day have the same liberties as America. One hundred and forty years later, that kind of thinking has led in the direction of changing America from a concrete particular society into a universal democratic empire.

My second problem with Lincoln is related to the first, and has to do with the way he reversed himself on the race question, starting from his affirmation in 1858 that while he was against slavery he was also against social and political equality between the races (which, in the absence of colonization, was an incoherent and perhaps dishonest position), and then changing his position, step by step as the war progressed, to one of legal and social equality across the board. True, he did not sign on to the Radicals’ demand that the former slaves instantly be given full citizenship rights, but his overall orientation was such that it’s hard to see how he could have held out against it. Liberals see this process as a masterful exercise of progressive politics, which, they believe, requires that a reactionary society be gulled into moving in the “right” direction. Alternatively, we could interpret Lincoln’s reversal as he himself professed to see it, as the purely pragmatic product of the vast unfolding exigencies of the war. Perhaps he really did have no choice but to keep moving toward an embrace of complete racial equality. Still, considering that his intellectual clarity and honesty are his most famous traits, the incoherence or even dishonesty of his initial position on race, combined with his reversing himself so radically on something so essential, and without his plainly stating that he was doing so, are not things that I admire him for.

On balance, though, as I said, I believe he was a very great man, though not of the same stature as Washington. So, looking over what I’ve written, perhaps instead of voting “Other,” I should have voted “Flawed giant.”
Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 14, 2002 11:32 PM | Send


I was a “flawed giant” man too, although I’d stress the first of those words more than Mr. Auster would.

It seems to me that Lincoln’s view that the union was prior to the states composing it tends strongly in the direction of a sort of liberal universalism. By the time the struggle with Great Britain began the separate colonial societies had been in existence for up to 150 years. Their religious, cultural and political origins and traditions were quite distinct. Lincoln seems to have believed that all that substantive history and development was trumped by a unity mainly generated by the common struggle for political independence from Britain, and then by the need to establish a stable and unified commercial system and provide for the common defense.

It appears to me that the basic thought behind such a view is that each of us is most fundamentally not a member of a particular society with particular historical, religious, cultural etc. loyalties, but an individual freely pursuing his own goals within a system that defends and facilitates his doing so. His Independence Hall statement was, it seems to me, of a piece with the constitutional views upon which he based his attitude toward secession.

It’s true that the unity of the United States in 1776 and 1787 also depended on certain religious, cultural and political commonalities, but those commonalities were much thinner than those obtaining within the particular states. Also, the federal government was not based on them and in some cases was forbidden to recognize them (e.g., no religious test for public office). So Lincoln’s view was that our basic political loyalty is to something that ignores such things in the interests of at least relative universalism. He thus treats the kinds of concerns traditionalist conservatives have as strictly subordinate to the kinds of concerns liberalism emphasizes— freedom, equality and prosperity.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 15, 2002 9:22 AM

My personal opinion of Lincoln is widely known. However, I will say that Lincoln occupies the same historical niche as Peter “the Great”. Both men instituted changes that shaped the course of history in their respective nations. Whether those changes were even neccessary or the results good is open to debate.

Posted by: Jason Eubanks on October 15, 2002 1:55 PM

I don’t know enough about Lincoln and the Civil War in detail to have a strong or nuanced opinion, but I put “flawed giant” also. It seems to me that he

1) Prevented a situation in which the North American continent would have had thousands of miles of West Bank type borders with the constant conflict that implies;

2) Definitively destroyed any possibility of America as a particular place and people in favor of its existence as a liberal abstraction;


3) Created the formal archetype of the modern liberal democratic nation-state, which went unbroken until Hitler renounced democracy as substantively antithetical to the freedom and equality of the German people and their protection against Jewish/globalist oppression.

Some might say that the Russian revolution was also such a structural break from Lincoln’s archetype but I don’t think so. The only nuance there is that they had a single dominant party instead of the supposedly multiple ones that we have; but I would have to suppose that there is a real difference between republicrats and demmicans in order for that formal difference to be critical. European monarchies have made their transitions in other ways of course, but I think it may not be an overstatement to attribute the modern nation-state to Lincoln.

Woe, how great and how terrible to be Lincoln. Was the cure any better than the disease?

Posted by: Matt on October 15, 2002 2:26 PM

Well, being the odd-man-out as usual, I put “Great National Hero.” My feelings on Lincoln generally arise from the fact that twin cliches that he kept the union together and abolished slavery. I do not believe he wanted this to occur through war, and made efforts to keep this from happening, as when he stated that the insitution of slavery would not be abolished in his first inaugural address.

As for the expansion of the federal government, I feel this was only natural at the outset of war, and since Lincoln did not live long beyond the end of the war, it becomes quite difficult to speculate as to exactly how he would have handled the change over to post-war governance. I tend to believe that he would not have favored an injudicious use of federal authority based upon his prior compassion - even for the South - and his self-described adherence to conservatism and affliliations with the Whig and Republican Parties.

And while Lincoln did emphasize traditional liberal concerns as Mr. Kalb noted - “freedom, equality and prosperity” - I do not believe he did so to the exclusion of traditional conservative ideas. The conflict arose because his conservatism, coming from the north, conflicted with southern conservatism, which cherished slavery. It is best to keep in mind here that northern abolitionists were not simply preaching enlightenment ideals, they were quoting scripture, and otherwise appealing to tradtional ideas and institutions. Lincoln himself appealed to this in his “House Divided” speech.

I do believe that Lincoln’s status as a “Great National Hero” was defined as much by events (Machiavellian “fortuna”) as it was by his own prowess, but I believe the phrase still applies. Whatever flaws he possessed were minor and do not diminish his ideology or his accomplishments.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on October 15, 2002 2:55 PM

I’m not sure why secession would have meant 2000 miles of constant border problems. The obvious problems that come to mind are Southern claims to unsettled Western lands, and raids by Northern abolitionists to free slaves. I think neither problem compares with the problem of conquering the South (which is what the North did).

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 15, 2002 6:29 PM

Mr. Kalb:

A quibble. You say:

“It seems to me that Lincoln’s view that the union was prior to the states composing it tends strongly in the direction of a sort of liberal universalism. By the time the struggle with Great Britain began the separate colonial societies had been in existence for up to 150 years. Their religious, cultural and political origins and traditions were quite distinct.”

This is true of the original 13 colonies/States, but is not true of those States which “joined” the Union after the ratification of the Constitution. These states (which include Illinois) were (are) the creations of the US Govt. They were formed out of US Government Territories. The creation and inclusion of these states into the Union has always seemed to me to compromise the (conceptual) notion that the States were (are) prior to the Union.

Posted by: Kirk on October 15, 2002 8:37 PM


Doesn’t compromise it at all. The new states were formed because the other states surrendered their claim to those territories. Are share holders just creations of the company because they weren’t around when the company formed?

Posted by: Jason Eubanks on October 15, 2002 9:14 PM

In reply to Mr. Kalb:

Well, my comments have to be taken as those of someone who was taught the usual stuff about the Civil War in high school a few decades ago and hasn’t ever gone looking for a more detailed base of facts. That isn’t self-deprecation, it is just the actual context for me. So my understanding is necessarily going to be tentative abstract reasoning based on a simple knowledge of the basic facts or cliches.

I was taught that the war started for economic reasons and finished with the end of slavery. The emancipation proclamation was important, but it came late in the game and only applied to the confederacy so it seems at least partly tactical, and in any event can’t in itself have been the reason why Lincoln thought he had to go to war. The most important thing to Lincoln (so the story goes) was the preservation of the union. But the preservation of the union is an empty goal in itself. Lincoln obviously didn’t see America as a substantive people as the reason to preserve the union, so the positive reason to preserve it had to be something more. That something more could just be propositional liberalism, but that makes the whole hubbub seem rather unnecessary.

I think there was probably more to it. The idea of secession is subversive and dangerous to civilization. If I can disobey the law by declaring myself and my territory an independent sovereign nation then any notion of the rule of law is over and done for. So preserving the union becomes equivalent to preserving the possibility of civilization at all. The South hadn’t read enough Nietzsche (OK, a little license on the time frame) to stare chaos in the face honestly and appreciate its implications. (Of course my predisposition to look at it that way at this particular moment is partly Richard John Neuhaus’s fault; I haven’t read any _Zarathustra_ for many years).

I also confess that my understanding is biased by the southern partisan political correctness I’ve encountered on VFR, though. A border thousands of miles long wall-to-wall with that sort of willful assertive blind adherence to a literal interpretation of “consent of the governed” and perfect pristine personal innocence in virtue of this supposed right to secede seems like a recipe for chronic ongoing disaster to me. I am not the person who actually lived it and had to make the decisions: Lincoln was. But I am predisposed at this point to believe that he had to choose, or legitimately thought he had to choose, between war to preserve the union and utter chaos.

I freely admit that it is mostly an abstraction based on sketchy high-school level facts and my own biases, though. The “what kind of conservative are you” widget had a “how important is this to you” radio button but a simple poll doesn’t.

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 1:09 AM

“The idea of secession is subversive and dangerous to civilization. If I can disobey the law by declaring myself and my territory an independent sovereign nation then any notion of the rule of law is over and done for. So preserving the union becomes equivalent to preserving the possibility of civilization at all. The South hadn’t read enough Nietzsche (OK, a little license on the time frame) to stare chaos in the face honestly and appreciate its implications.”

That’s rich. Matt attempting to gain an advantage by appealing to the “subversive” nature of secession. It’s pure irony. Matt seems to have forgotten that the holy mystical Union itself was a product of secession from Britain. Did Geo. Washington need to consult Nietzche before Yorktown?

I simply cannot even fathom why Matt feels secession is a “subversive” idea damaging to civilization in the first place. There have been plenty of such movements that have succeeded. I have yet to find those governments so formed lacking in the ability to promulgate laws and enforce them. Should the Greeks have simply resigned themselves to Ottoman rule ad infinitum in 1453?

Posted by: Jason Eubanks on October 16, 2002 2:03 AM

Mr. Eubanks is reverting to form. He assumes that others care as much about the Lincoln/Civil War issue as he does. I certainly do not. I only care about the actual America that actually exists now, not an idealization of it that requires perfect moral innocence for legitimacy. He already knows that I have serious doubts as to whether the the rebellion against Britian was morally justified.

There have been plenty of rebellions. Some have been successful by some measures. Calling a rebellion “secession” in order to shift the moral burden of proof from the rebels to the established order is in fact a rhetorical trick that is dangerous to civilization. It is also an expression of radical liberalism antithetical to all things traditional.

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 2:39 AM

To Kirk: the intention was for the new states to acquire the same status as the old. If they did then the question of priority between the union and the states ought in theory to have remained unaffected. Very likely as you suggest that theory didn’t work out in practice, at least in the minds of many people.

To Matt: what you say depends on the view that secession was illegal under the 1787 Constitution, which isn’t altogether clear to me. The Constitution ( ) appears to base its claim to be law on the notion that the people of each of the states meeting in convention had the power to abandon the union created by the Articles of Confederation ( ) and set up a different sort of union among the (9 or more) states agreeing to it. That power was not based on any explicit law, and was at odds with the terms of the “perpetual” Articles of Confederation, so it was apparently conceived as a sort of original preconstitutional right that the people of the individual states had just because each was a political people. If that’s so, and the Constitution bases its notion of legality on an original constitution-making right of the peoples of the states, then it’s not clear why it should it be thought to abrogate that right.

I don’t think that view leads to anarchy in the way you suggest, by the way. It’s not a claim of a general right of secession, of my right to secede from the State of New York for example. It just treats the states as the sovereign polities and the Federal government as a limited sort of instrumentality, a sort of combination of NAFTA and NATO, that the states set up voluntarily and could leave voluntarily. It seems to me the way the Constitution was adopted lends some color to that view.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 16, 2002 11:24 AM

Mr. Kalb:

I have seen that argument before, and I don’t discount it, but it is not directly relevant to what I claim. There is I think a special burden on any revolutionary who sets out to destroy the established order and set up a new order, even if the revolutionary is in the right, explicitly or implicitly. It is not that I believe that the overthrow of tyranny is always wrong. It is that any rebel must meet a steep moral burden of proof, and attempting to create an argument out of implicit assumptions in order to not pay your taxes doesn’t meet that burden, especially when you initiate the shooting. The elimination of that steep burden is a core part of the liberal project of emancipation, and we have in fact seen where that leads so it would be odd to deny that that is where it leads.

Anyway, my argument is not that a horrifying anarchy along the north-south border was inevitable unless the rebellion was put down as a question of fact, since “what might have been” is never really a question of fact. My argument is that Lincoln and many others may well have thought so, that it seems reasonable for them to have thought so, and that they knew far more about the actual circumstances and attitudes than any of us.

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 12:15 PM

Another way to state my concern with Mr. Kalb’s analysis is that he appears to be arguing as to what may or may not have been implicitly legal. I am not here concerned with that. I am concerned with what is/was actually moral, not with what is/was implicitly legal.

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 12:26 PM

Matt had said that

“The idea of secession is subversive and dangerous to civilization. If I can disobey the law by declaring myself and my territory an independent sovereign nation then any notion of the rule of law is over and done for. So preserving the union becomes equivalent to preserving the possibility of civilization at all.”

Whether secession was legal under the 1787 constitution seemed directly relevant to that. It might even if legal have been bad, highly culpable, etc. but I wasn’t addressing that. It’s also possible that both secession and the decision to hold the union together by force were wrong. That’s what I am inclined to think, actually. It seems unlikely to me though that the threat of constant border warfare was much of a factor in Lincoln’s view that the union must be preserved at all costs.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 16, 2002 12:40 PM

I guess Mr. Kalb has discovered where he sees something as relevant in the analysis and I do not. Whether or not something is considered implicitly legal by someone (e.g. abortion) is less important to me than the fact that they feel that that implicit legality allows them to start killing government officials over it. It also doesn’t seem unreasonable for someone to worry that the sort of people who discover implicit legal rights and enforce them with bullets fired at government officials might be a problem that has to be addressed in order to avoid anarchy. Other perspectives are no doubt possible, but the one I just described is not an unreasonable one.

That is in the abstract, though, and I don’t claim to know what Lincoln actually thought when he was making his decisions. I am sure other explanations of the apparent life-and-death need to preserve the union are possible, and someone more historically knowledgeable than myself is welcome to chime in with them.

(I am inclined to think that both courses of action were wrong too, by the way. I said as much in another thread but it is worth repeating here).

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 7:28 PM

Let me simplify it. The mindset I see as dangerous to civilization (of whatever form) reasons as follows:

1) I think that I have some right. It is not explicitly a right but I think I have it implicitly.

2) A government authority disagrees with me.

3) I can therefore preemptively start killing off government officials in order to protect my implicit right that I think I have.

That is precisely what the South did. The determination of whether or not the South actually had that implicit legal right is irrelevant to me. People who believe, act on, or corroborate in the above process demonstrate thereby that they are incapable of living in a civilized world and therefore do not have any rights whatsoever, and more so than any other sort of criminal. The truth value of proposition 1, the right they implicitly think they have, is irrelevant.

This model of course is not necessarily universal. If the “right” we are talking about (I really don’t like framing morality in terms of rights but I’ll play along) is the right to not have your family tortured to death while you watch then that probably justifies the preemptive killing of the government officials in question. If the “right” is to not pay taxes then the model above applies.

It is precisely on this threshold where the South fails, and it is the mind set by which it fails that I see as intrinsically dangerous to civilization of any sort at all.

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 8:49 PM

Typo: “and more so” should be “any more so”.

Posted by: Matt on October 16, 2002 8:52 PM

Mr. Kalb is making two arguments in favor of secession, one philosophical, the other legal. His philosophical argument amounts to a kind of rehearsal of paleoconservative doctrine: Smaller communities, such as the states, are inherently more substantive, more real, and therefore more legitimate than larger communities, such as the United States, which are abstract and universal and tend in the direction of pure liberal rights. While I find those statements questionable in themselves, what I find even more questionable is Mr. Kalb’s attempt to leapfrog from his philosophical preference for smaller over larger communities to his legal and Constitutional denial of United States sovereignty. Lincoln was mistaken in believing that our primary political loyalty should be to the United States, says Mr. Kalb, because our primary political loyalty SHOULD be (in Mr. Kalb’s view) to the states. But by primary loyalty Mr. Kalb really means sovereignty. In effect, he has subordinated the juridical and Constitutional question of the determination of sovereignty to his sentimental or metaphysical affirmation that small is better.

On the legal/Constitutional question proper, he says that the states had prior existence to the Constitution and so can leave any time they want without consent of the other states. He bases this on the following reasoning: The way the Constitution was ratified, by the ratification of any nine states, meant that those states were leaving the Union and breaking their bond with whatever states did not ratify; therefore any “perpetual” Union asserted in the existing constitution (the articles of Confederation) was abrogated and the states became free actors, doing what they will. The nine ratifying states were simply asserting their will as against the prior existing constitution and therefore they were prior both to the existing constitution and to the new Constitution that was being created. But a crucial fact, which Mr. Kalb misses, is that the ratification procedure was the result of an agreement of all the states’ delegations at the Constitutional convention. It was not a mere expression of will, but a consensual process involving all the states and to which they were all bound. Can Mr. Kalb find a similar consensual procedure at work in 1860 and ‘61?

As for any procedural “grey” areas in the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Constitution, to take those grey areas that unavoidably occurred in the creation of a new and far more comprehensive and binding instrument of government as the basis for asserting that the formation of that new instrument REALLY meant (though no one seemed to notice it at the time!) that the United States was becoming LESS binding than it had previously been, seems questionable to say the least. Moreover, Mr. Kalb should not be the one trying to drive a Sherman tank (sorry for the bad metaphor) through a tiny procedural gap in what is after all a merely human instrument. He has previously criticized the Constitution as a symbol of modern man’s attempt to construct an all-embracing, self-sufficient, self-running secular order in denial of the higher dimensions and deeper complexities of human-divine existence. But now he declares the sovereign nation created by the Constitution nugatory because, he says, the Constitution is not SUFFICIENTLY comprehensive!

Finally, there is the simple question of logic and common sense. Mr. Kalb’s notion that each state has the right to secede on a whim, without any consent or consultation of the other states, would simply have rendered the United States null and void from the start, no more permanent, as I’ve said previously, than a day laborer’s job. Reasoning that leads to such an absurd conclusion is obviously flawed.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 16, 2002 9:13 PM

I don’t think I presented a philosophical argument in favor of secession. The topic was Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Auster presented an appraisal of Lincoln in which he seemed to distance the man’s view that the preservation of the union is a supreme good from his liberal or “neoconservative” ideology. It seems to me in contrast that the two are closely related. I therefore presented what appears to me the philosophical basis—a sort of philosophical liberalism—for Lincoln’s view that from the beginning the union was prior to the states. That view seems very odd to me as an historical and logical matter. Lincoln was far from stupid and no mere opportunist, so it’s plausible that his view was based on his fundamental understanding of what man and political life are about, and that the union stood for what he thought is the natural object of our ultimate political loyalties.

I did go on later to discuss the legality of secession under the 1787 constitution since the conversation took that turn. I don’t think though that I subordinated juridical and constitutional questions to sentiment or metaphysics. Rather, I looked at the understandings on which the Constitution itself seems to have been based and asked what view of secession is most consistent with those understandings. Mr. Auster places great weight on the fact that the delegations to the Constitutional Convention, who were delegated to do one thing, agreed to something else, and the Continental Congress forwarded the results of their agreement to the states for their judgment. I don’t see how those circumstances affect the view of those involved where ultimate lawful political authority lay. If they had wanted to they could have adopted the Constitution in accordance with Article XIII, par. 1 of the Articles of Confederation, but they didn’t. So it seems they didn’t think ultimate lawful political authority was with the union and its organic law—they thought it was with the people of each state.

Ultimate authority can of course be exercised well or badly. Since it’s ultimate it’s hard to think of a procedure to keep it from being exercised whimsically if those with ultimate power—to the men of 1787, the people of each state—choose to act that way. The fact that it can be abused, or that in what is intended as a free self-governing society dependant on voluntary cooperation the necessary cooperation might not be forthcoming, doesn’t mean a government is void ab initio. There are no guarantees against failure in constitutional politics.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 16, 2002 10:31 PM

So Lincoln was wrong about the primacy of the Union because he was philosophically a liberal. It seems to me that Mr. Kalb, despite his protestations, is indeed basing his rejection of the primacy of the Union on philosophical preferences. In any case, the assertion that support for the Union was contingent on a liberal world view is not correct as a factual matter. Many pro-Unionists were not liberals at all. Orestes Brownson was a philosphical conservative who supported the Union and supported the end of slavery, but beyond that said that he preferred the society and culture of the South to that of the North. Sherman, who had spent his entire adult life in the South and whose closest friends were all Southerners, was imbued with a love and loyalty to the United States, a sense of its substantive and historical unity, and the fixed determination to restore it, yet he was quite conservative philosophically, conservative on racial matters, had little sympathy for democracy, had no interest in a larger governent other than what was immediately necessary for the restoration of the Union, and took no interest in political questions beyond the primary question of restoring the Union. He was, one might say, a non-ideological paleo-conservative, that is, one whose conservatisim is based on a sensible and intuitive grasp of reality.

Mr. Kalb says: “I looked at the understandings on which the Constitution itself seems to have been based and asked what view of secession is most consistent with those understandings.”

But what about the understandings, shared by the founders, that America was becoming a “more perfect union” (not a less perfect union), a more clearly sovereign nation (not a less sovereign nation), with a single army (not 13 armies), a single currency (not 13 currencies), a single foreign policy (not 13 foreign policies), and so on? Somehow these existential facts escape Mr. Kalb’s metaphysical treatment of the issue.

Mr. Kalb writes: “If they had wanted to they could have adopted the Constitution in accordance with Article XIII, par. 1 of the Articles of Confederation, but they didn’t. So it seems they didn’t think ultimate lawful political authority was with the union and its organic law—they thought it was with the people of each state.”

Yes, because the Articles of Confederation were woefully inadequate, the founders wanted to start off with a new instrument of government. Makes sense to me, as it has to every other generation of Americans. But Mr. Kalb takes the fact that the new Constitution was ratified by the states through a consensual process as proving that ultimate political authority lay with each individual state as a sovereign entity, from which he then concludes that any state could drop out of the United States whenever it felt like it! This is, I think, terribly strained reasoning that seems quite divorced from political reality as experienced and understood by the people of the founding generation and by all other generations of Americans, with, of course, the tragic exception of the secessionists and their philosophical defenders, whose mad act of dissolving the United States on the mere assertion of their own will—justified on the theory that they had the perfect “legal” right to do so—brought on that devastating war and the destruction of the southern society.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 16, 2002 11:48 PM

I didn’t say Lincoln was wrong about the primacy of the union because he was philosophically a liberal but rather that his belief in the primacy of the union and his philosophical liberalism were of a piece. I didn’t comment on all the other men who had their own views for their own reasons. Brownson’s thought was highly individualistic and went through various radical transformations. Sherman was a career soldier who, as Mr. Auster points out, was nonphilosophical. I don’t know enough about either to say whether their views were even consistent. Grant was another career soldier; his view, for what it was worth, was that the right of secession was in line with the original intent and understandings of the founders but things had changed since then. (Personal Memoirs, vol. I, ch. xvi.).

As to the purposes of the Constitution, “more perfect union” did not mean “consolidated goverment.” “Sovereign nation” suggests the latter, and except in relation to foreign countries doesn’t seem applicable to a federation with few and defined powers. What “more perfect union” appears to have meant was “more perfect union of the kind created by the Articles of Confederation”—one that could deal with foreign affairs, maintain and to some extent facilitate the development of an internal common market, and pay the bills while doing so. The changes weren’t as revolutionary in principle as Mr. Auster seems to suggest. Under the Articles of Confederation ( http:// ) foreign policy was already unified and military forces were under common command and control, for example.

One aspect of Mr. Auster’s view of the matter that I don’t understand is the “mere assertion of whimsical will” issue. I’ve given one response, that a problem in any constitutional arrangement is that whoever has ultimate authority may and sometimes will use it to do something malicious or brainless. Another that seems applicable here is that it doesn’t seem wilful, whimsical or anarchic to say that the North and the South, as the South then was and intended to remain, really didn’t belong together in a single political society. Lincoln himself seemed to agree with that view in his “House Divided” speech.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 17, 2002 8:28 AM

Mr. Kalb writes: “One aspect of Mr. Auster’s view of the matter that I don’t understand is the ‘mere assertion of whimsical will’ issue.”

How could Mr. Kalb not understand my main point which (1) I’ve explained and repeated over and over in this thread and elsewhere, and (2) which just happens to have been the main point in contention between the North and the South? For him to say he disagrees with the idea that there is no right of unilateral secession is one thing. For him to say he doesn’t even understand the idea suggests that this whole discussion, both in this thread and elsewhere, has been a waste of time.

Then Mr. Kalb changes the subject from the legal question of secession to the political/cultural question of whether North and South really belonged together, and then he makes the illogical leap of saying that because they really didn’t belong together, it was not a mere assertion of will for the South to secede the way it did. As I’ve said before, if the South had been acting lawfully and responsibly, and not as rebels, they would have called for some kind of conference of the states to consider consensual measures to resolve the conflict, including the ultimate measure of disunion. Instead they unilaterally declared the United States dissolved, seized federal properties including forts and arsenals, beseiged a federal fort for a couple of months, and then, when that fort was about to be resupplied with food, bombarded it for over a day until it surrendered.

Face it. The South engaged in rebellion, not in any lawful Constitutional procedure, and they brought on themselves that terrible war that destroyed the South. All that took place 140 years ago, and the issue of the legality of secession was at great cost resolved THEN (or so it seemed to several generations of Americans North and South who accepted the results of the Civil War). In Washington D.C. we have a memorial to Lincoln for saving the Union, not to Jefferson Davis for trying to destroy it. Can’t we please, finally, after 140 years, let this issue rest and not keep re-asserting these secessionist ideas that led to the Civil War in the first place?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 17, 2002 10:57 AM

I suppose if Davis had hanged the perps of the Fort Sumter incident and unequivocally disavowed their actions then the wrangling about legalities might have some relevance. The situation is significantly analogous to present-day Islamic terrorism versus “moderate Islam” in that respect. As it is, I have no idea why any civilized present day person should care about the legal secessionist issues except to recognize the mindset as intrinsically criminal and antithetical to civilization.

Posted by: Matt on October 17, 2002 11:59 AM

It seems that Matt, Mr. Auster and I don’t understand each other well enough at this time for the discussion to be productive.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 17, 2002 12:51 PM

Larry Auster tweaked me by e-mail to see if I was saying that Mr. Kalb’s personal mindset is criminal. I don’t claim to fully understand Mr. Kalb’s personal mindset on the matter, so no, that is not what I mean. What I mean is that just because you think you have, or even actually do have, certain rights, that does not excuse preemptively attacking and killing government officials during the dispute over those rights except in extreme dire circumstances. A few percentage points of taxation do not constitute such dire circumstances. Furthermore, such a preemptive criminal attack makes the original dispute irrelevant. So the Southerners who attacked Sumter were criminals. They were not acknowledged to be, tried, and hanged as such by Davis and the other secessionists. Davis and the other secessionists were (at least) accessories to the crime. So whether or not their tax rates were too high or they had a right to secede as a legal matter is, barring some facts or argument that I have not yet seen, irrelevant.

I acknowledge some ambiguity in my own position in earlier posts. I haven’t even gotten to the point of thinking it relevant to worry about the legality or morality of secession (done in a civilized manner) at all. It is the combination of the notion of the legality of secession with the initiation of preemptive violence against government officials that is criminal, and makes the rest of it moot. It is as if I genuinely thought that my tax bill was illegal, and because I thought so I killed some IRS agents and robbed Fort Knox in advance preemptive anticipation that my tax bill (legal or not) would be enforced. In such a circumstance I would be a criminal, and whether or not I was right about the legality of my tax bill would no longer be a relevant question.

Posted by: Matt on October 17, 2002 1:07 PM
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