September 3, 2009

Putting a republic to the test

I just finished Michael Lind's book What Lincoln Believed. It's not a biography, it's a philosophical examination. It covers Lincoln's religious, economic, and racial views. For most of his life, he was a deist. He was a Hamiltonian, while most of his Southern opponents were Jeffersonians. And while he belived "all men are created equal," he believed human rights didn't necessarily equate with civil rights.

What stunned me most about this book was how it changed my view of the American Civil War. Common wisdom says the war was about slavery. Confederate sympathizers have said it was about state's rights, but none could pretend that the primary right being argued about was anything other than the right to buy and sell human beings.

Lincoln did not run for office on an abolitionist platform. Like the country's founders, he was willing to allow slavery to remain where it already existed. The point of contention was whether Southern slaveholders would be allowed to export slaves to the new territories in the West.

When, after Lincoln's election, Southerners demanded concessions on threat of secession, Lincoln refused to be blackmailed. In a letter rejecting one compromise proposal, he wrote, "We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told … the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten…"

The "beaten" pro-slavery minority, tried, as Lincoln put it, "to break up the government." When Lincoln said, in his address at Gettysburg, that the war was testing whether the republic "can long endure," he was not talking about slavery. He was talking about the ability of a democratically elected government to quell an internal rebellion by an angry minority.

In an address to Congress in 1861, Lincoln summed up the matter this way: "When ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets…there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves…whatever they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war…"

I have sometimes wondered why the union bothered to fight. If Southern states no longer wished to be part of the Union, why force them to stay in it? Here's why: The Constitution contains no mechanism for a state, once admitted to the union, to later separate from it. That means the Southern states' secession was unconstitutional. Lincoln's duly elected administration was opposed by insurgents who flouted the country's founding principles. As Lind puts it, "The Civil War was about law and order in the service of democracy."

Lind's text is a bit dense at times, but it is worth working through to get at these gems of insight about one of our nation's finest presidents and darkest times.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

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