A discussion of secession ultimately centers on the question of “quitting,” and more specifically, when is it right to quit, if ever? There are two basic questions that must be asked: first, does such a fundamental right exist; and second, is it Constitutional.
Whenever talk of secession arises, whether in the early to mid 1800’s in America or now, a dissatisfied group of citizens expresses their frustration by demanding a break of political ties and a separation from the Union.
It is essential from the outset to clarify a few terms, specifically a distinction between secession and revolution (at least in the minds of Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln). While revolution and secession both represent a breaking of ties with others, I will attempt to show how Lincoln’s understanding of the difference between the two was much greater than just semantics.
The key distinction between the two concepts is of intention, ultimate goals, and most importantly, basis. For Lincoln, the distinction could most clearly be seen by comparing the cause of 1776 vs. the cause of 1860-61. In Lincoln’s mind, one breaking of ties was just, while the other was not.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson provides us with the theoretical argument for revolution, as well as the practical evidence based upon this theory of why the colonists were just in their cause of breaking their “political bands” with Great Britain. The Declaration affirms that when a group’s God-given rights have been denied (and when political means to remedy the problem have failed), the ties can be broken. Essential to the American Revolution then, is the fact that the natural rights of all men were being denied. At this juncture, a people can legitimately break their political bands and seek their independence. In Lincoln’s mind, this is the legitimate nature of revolution.
We can contrast this with the political separation of 1860, when the South, after losing an unquestionably constitutionally held election, unsatisfied with the results, decided to sever their political ties with the North. For Lincoln, the claimed right of separation on the part of the South could not have been more different then the cause of revolution and liberty in 1776. Following the South’s secession, Lincoln repeatedly questioned what fundamental right was being denied for which they could legitimately “quit” the Union? In his mind, no such claim or cause existed. The repeated refrain of “states rights” or “property rights” was, of course, nothing more than the South’s claim to protect their “right” to own other human beings; a claim which Lincoln correctly argued is not grounded in the “laws of nature or nature’s God.” Rather, it is the essence of corrupt political rule which is based in the denial of natural rights.
Lincoln often compared the institution of slavery with the claimed “divine right” of Kings, both of which were a denial of individuals’ fundamental rights, where some were placed in a position to rule over others by the mere chance of birth. Both institutions are a denial of a person’s God-given liberty and, as such, both can be legitimately revolted against. For Lincoln, there was only one group who could lay claim to a legitimate right to “quit” in 1860, and it certainly wasn’t white southerners. Rather, it was their African slaves. Lincoln never denied a legitimate right of breaking political ties. What was essential was the nature of the cause. Quitting because you don’t like an election outcome or because you fear you will lose your claim to own another person both fail the test of legitimate causes.
While some suggest that the difference between secession and revolution is merely semantic, for Lincoln it was clear that the basis and intentions for breaking ties was more than that.
Our second question is this: does a right of secession exist within our constitutional framework. The answer to this question is simple: no. The Constitution is silent on the subject of states’ attempts to “de-ratify” their participation. More fundamentally, the underlying premise is one of perpetuation. The preamble of the U.S. Constitution makes this clear:
“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 Union was not to be temporary, but permanent, designed not just for the present but for posterity. The inference is clear: this was a Union intended to last.
Finally, a political society based on the idea that “quitting when unhappy” with the political twists and turns of our government is destined for destruction. Lincoln described secession in this way: “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 opinion and sentiments is the only true sovereign of free people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or despotism.” The nature of quitting, if held as a fundamental, stand alone principle, will ultimately lead to anarchy, soon to be replaced by despotism.
Constitutionalism demands an adherence to the laws, even if we do not like the decisions that are being made. I may not support a war, but I am obligated to pay my taxes and support it – perhaps even fight in it – as a part of my obligation as a citizen. Likewise, states are obligated to obey the laws of the land as a part of their commitment to the perpetuation of the Union. The solution to bad laws is found in our system of free and frequent elections. Lincoln famously stated in his July 4, 1861 address to Congress that “ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.”
Constitutionalism requires us to accept election outcomes, and then pursue change in later elections. This is not to suggest that ties can never be broken. As mentioned above, Lincoln truly believed that southern slaves did indeed have a legitimate claim to break ties with their oppressors.
The South never claimed that they were revolting from the North, nor did they base an appeal to quit in the Declaration or some other natural law basis of rights. To do so would have forced them to explain how in nature their cause was legitimate, and how their continued support for the institution of chattel slavery was moral. Had the North been denying a fundamental natural right of the southerners, the South would have had an absolute claim to revolt against its northern oppressors. No such claim can be made.
With current discussions of secession being thrown around and an increasing public opinion in support of a right of secession, we would do well to consider Lincoln’s warnings. If we ever reach a point where some demand a breaking of the political bands that have held this Union together for over 200 years, we must be certain that all political means to remedy the problem have been exhausted and that the cause be one grounded in the laws of nature and nature’s God
(CCU Faculty) 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. It is fitting that we recognize this anniversary, as Lincoln’s election marked a huge turning point in our nation’s history. I will accordingly offer a series of posts drawing our attention to the milestones of 1860.Throughout much of that year, Lincoln traveled to several states to deliver many important speeches. He focused considerable attention on the issue of slavery and, while doing so, forced his audiences to consider what the United States was about. In nearly every speech, Lincoln returned to our founding document: the Declaration of Independence. In fact, in his Peoria Speech of 1854, he referred to the Declaration as the “sheet anchor” of America. Lincoln’s continuous return to the Declaration was due to the fact the he believed that it, more than anything else, defined the nature and purpose of the Union.Just at this point in that fateful year, on February 27, having traveled from his home in Illinois to the northeast, Abraham Lincoln gave the first of his major election year speeches at the Cooper Union in New York City. In this speech, Lincoln painstakingly describes the thoughts of the authors of our Constitution concerning slavery. This was significant, as southerners were increasingly manipulating the thoughts and words of the Founders, arguing that they viewed chattel slavery as a good institution and that the founders did not believe that African slaves were fully human, entitled to equal rights.In the Dred Scott Opinion, Chief Justice Taney had wrongly argued that the Founding Fathers never intended for blacks to enjoy equal rights in America. Likewise, Senator Stephen Douglas had argued in a published article that the Founders had been opposed to the Congress having power to regulate slavery in the territories. Douglas was a proponent of allowing the voters within each territory to determine whether to be a free state or a slave state. This position violated the long-standing rules passed by the Congress in 1820, whereby in the territory adopted from the Louisiana Purchase, Congress had limited where slavery could and could not be implemented.In preparation for this speech, Lincoln devoted hours of research time in order to determine what exactly the authors of the Constitution believed concerning slavery, and whether or not it could exist for long in light of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon noted that Lincoln spent considerable effort studying the founders, writing: "No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one." The Speech is divided into three parts. In part one, Lincoln systematically goes through the 39 delegates who had signed on to the Constitution at the Convention of 1787. In this, Lincoln proves decisively that of these delegates, an overwhelming majority were either opposed to the spread of slavery or were silent on the matter. There was little to no evidence that the signers of the Constitution found it outside of the purview of the Congress to regulate the spread of slavery in the territories. As an example, Lincoln cites the fact that 76 members of the First Congress (including 16 of the 39) framed the first ten Amendments at the very same time that they were passing the Ordinance that enforced the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory.The second part of his speech deals with the problem of slave rebellions and the south’s claim that such rebellions were caused by the Republican Party. Lincoln denies this, stating that there was no evidence that any Republicans had supported slave revolts. Nonetheless, Lincoln continues to stress the moral wrongness of slavery. Quoting Jefferson, Lincoln states: “It is still in our power to direct emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be, pari passu, filled up by free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up."The final part of the Cooper Union Speech turns to the evolving attitude of the southerners. Lincoln believed that the south was no longer merely interested in keeping slavery legal in the south. Rather, with the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Opinion as their support, southerners were increasingly motivated to have slavery spread to states and territories where it had been previously forbidden. Linked to this expansion was the southern belief that slavery was actually a good institution and the proper place for people of African descent. For this reason, Lincoln concluded that nothing would satisfy the southerners save finding slavery to be good, and as such, allowing for it to spread. “So, what will satisfy them? We must stop calling slavery wrong. We must call it right. We cannot be silent. We must be with them. We must support Senator Douglas's sedition act, it must be enacted and enforced. We must suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong. We must pull down the Free State Constitutions. Yes, to outlaw slavery is to say it is wrong, so we must allow slavery. We must remove all taint of opposition to slavery. This, and this alone, will satisfy them.”Lincoln concludes with this challenge and admonition to his fellow Republicans: “So, Republicans, I say: Do not give in! Do not compromise! Do not seek some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”Many modern historians have attempted to frame the election of 1860 into a battle over “states rights”, “property” and “economic differences.” It cannot be more clear that the victor in 1860 knew full well that while each of these concepts is certainly relevant to the election, slavery was the central issue. For Lincoln, the future of the Union would be determined by the outcome on this issue. His clarity of purpose and determination to end what is morally wrong define the election of 1860.
('76 Editor) This is Lincoln's birthday. It used to be a holiday in this country; no more. Yet some of us still revere Abraham Lincoln as the greatest American who ever lived. He is a hero to me because of the moral penetration of his mind, his greatness of soul, his political subtlety and discernment, his determined rise from obscurity to eminence, and the genius of his statesmanship in not only freeing the slaves while saving the Union, but helping the nation to a second birth of “more perfect Union” by so doing.
Here is what Lincoln said at Independence Hall on George Washington's birthday, February 22, 1861, as he journeyed toward the nation's capital to be inaugurated as President with secession already sundering the Union and civil war impending. If our country is less free and less confident of our destiny today, it is because the truths of the Declaration of Independence have less of a grip on us than they did on Americans in Washington's time and Lincoln's time. You and I should ask ourselves every day what we can do to turn that situation around - or we will lose our country.
I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence.
I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.
Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.