Examining all sides of America’s most celebrated president and his actions.
When it comes to American history, perhaps no subject is examined or written on more than the Civil War. Behind the Civil War is the face of America’s most cherished and beloved president. Known for his eloquent, articulated speeches and his firm stance on unconditional surrender, combined with his passion for seeing “a new birth of freedom” on American soil, Abraham Lincoln needs little description on the surface. As with any historical figures, however, once we dive beneath the surface, we see an image of Lincoln that is not as clean-cut as a typical history book would have one believe.
I am going to be very personal in this article. I want to make it clear that I am in no way trying to hurt anyone’s image of Lincoln. All I ask is that everyone keep an open mind as we examine many aspects of Lincoln that are not frequently discussed.
In today’s age, questioning Abraham Lincoln, and especially the Civil War, seems to be a taboo. Gone are the days when Americans could seemingly have a conversation about mid-nineteenth century politics, without one of the debaters being deemed a racist, Lost Cause propagandist, or southern-nationalist sympathizer. There are three primary aspects of Lincoln’s presidency that I would like to examine, and I have a question for each:
- Was secession legal?
- Was Lincoln justified in using federal troops to suppress the Confederacy?
- Was Lincoln right in using war to abolish an institution that had been abolished peacefully in most other locations?
Was secession legal?
Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul makes the claim that, before the 1860s, no one in the United States viewed secession as illegal. In fact, New Englanders once talked of secession. In 1869, the Supreme Court ruled in “Texas v. White” that the Confederate States had never left the union, because secession was not a unilateral right within the constitution. Even Robert E. Lee, who fought for the Confederacy because he could not draw arms against his homeland of Virginia, did not believe secession was a constitutional right. The 1869 decision, however, was after the Civil War; I would like to examine this question before the war. How do we handle a difficult question such as this?
To start, let’s take a look at other examples of secession. In 1836, the Republic of Texas declared independence from Mexico, to which the United States supported. Before that, the American colonies seceded from the British Empire in 1776. Were they not a free and independent people, having severed ties with their former government, even though that government deemed it illegal? In this respect, it would almost certainly seem hypocritical to condemn secession, while celebrating the Fourth of July or Texas Independence.
It is important to look at why the south seceded. Harsh debates over the issue of slavery, as well as whether or not to extend it to newly-acquired western territories, had occurred long before 1860. Abraham Lincoln even ran on the 1860 Republican ticket while asserting that he would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed; all he asked was that it stay confined to the south, rather than extend westward. Lincoln’s election was the final straw for the Democratic South, who saw his election as trampling on their “rights.” State by state, the south began seceding from the Union. Four of the first states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas – all listed slavery in their Immediate Causes of Secession, and they listed slavery as a primary interest. Many governors and other politicians from southern states also mentioned the importance of slavery.
If you believe in consistency, then it would seem that the South did have the right to secede, as did the American Colonies and the Republic of Texas. This does not, however, mean that they were seceding for moral reasons. On the issue of southern secession, Lincoln stated, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask for a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Lincoln also made a truthful assertion on the issue of secession when he said, “The right of revolution is never a legal right…At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause. When exercised without such a cause, revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power.”
Was secession legal before the Civil War? There is no evidence to assume the contrary. The founding fathers were virtually silent on the issue, but it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.” He later said, “If any state in the union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in the union…I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’”
While the founders were mostly silent on the issue, it is clear that Jefferson believed in the right of secession. For open-minded people, I can best sum it up like this: Secession may have been a right, but it does not mean that the south wished to leave the union for moral reasons, and Lincoln understood this. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this topic, however, is asking yourself, “Though they may not have wanted to secede for moral reasons, should they have still been allowed to do so?”
Was Lincoln justified in using federal troops to suppress the Confederacy?
The Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861. Shots rang out across Charleston Harbor as Fort Sumter, now within Confederate territory, was fired upon. Asking whether or not Lincoln had the right to suppress the Confederacy comes from the standpoint of whether or not you believe the Confederacy was a sovereign nation that had the right to fire on foreign troops who refused to leave.
South Carolina seceded from the union on December 20, 1860. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861. For nearly four months, union troops occupied a fort that was within the territory of a newly-seceded republic. Both James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln made attempts to resupply the fort. Lincoln had contacted the government of South Carolina, informing them that he was resupplying the fort. South Carolina ordered the fort to be abandoned, and when union forces refused, the fort was fired upon. Though there were no casualties on either side, Lincoln saw this as an act of aggression, and called for 75,000 volunteers. Lincoln did not view the Confederacy as a legitimate nation, but rather, as a rebellion or uprising.
Since United States troops were fired upon, Lincoln certainly had the right to react with force. Although South Carolina had declared themselves separated from the United States, they were wrong to fire on troops that meant them no harm. As Ronald Reagan said during his 1986 speech on sending missiles to Libya following Muammar Gaddafi’s treatment of American citizens, “When our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world, on the direct orders of a hostile regime, we will respond.” Donald Trump followed suit with this belief with his missile strikes on Syria, and long before that, Thomas Jefferson introduced the world to the might of the U.S. Navy when the Tripolitan Empire began harassing and capturing American sailors. Some people argue that the South was not looking to be the aggressor, but I somewhat disagree, as just years earlier, pro-slavery forces engaged in the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, which ignited the Bleeding Kansas conflict.
Was Lincoln right in using war to abolish an institution that had been abolished peacefully in most other locations?
Some libertarian political figures have made the claim that there was no need for a war to end slavery, as it was a dying institution, and they claim that it would have been much more beneficial to simply compensate the slave owners. This belief, however, goes against Thomas Jefferson’s statement of preferring dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.
It is true that slavery, in most parts of the world, was abolished peacefully over time. France and the British Empire are prime examples. In America, however, the slaveholders sought to extend slavery into the west, and they did not wish to hear remarks of abolition. In another part of the Western Hemisphere, however, Haiti became its own nation by overthrowing French rule and establishing freedom for slaves. Should anyone dared to ask the Haitians, who were longing for their freedom, to simply wait until slavery was “peacefully dissolved?”
It is also true that Abraham Lincoln did not originally go into the Civil War to put down slavery. His goal at the outset of the war was solely the preservation of the union. As the war progressed, however, he began to see the importance of freeing the slaves as a war measure, and following the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s tone on the war changed. Now, it was not just about preserving the union, but about introducing a new birth of freedom to the country. Lincoln would go on to ensure that the war brought about an end to slavery, and he would push for the passing of the 13th Amendment.
Although slavery may have been abolished peacefully in most other locations, I feel as though that is beside the point. For those who believe that slavery should have been peacefully abolished, I have a serious question: If the Civil War never happened, how long should slavery have continued? If anything, the Civil War proved that America was ready for a new birth of freedom, and that people were willing to die so others might be free. Though the outcome of the Civil War did not, unfortunately, decide immediate equality for African-Americans, it definitely paved the way for Lincoln’s vision of a “new birth of freedom.”
Abraham Lincoln is the most admired and respected president in American history, and by most regards, he deserves those claims. He held the nation together during its worst constitutional crisis, and in the end, ensured that the Declaration of Independence rang true for all Americans to hear – that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Abraham Lincoln was far from perfect and made his fair share of mistakes. Lincoln will continue to be admired and respected by a large percentage of Americans, and he deserves to be the face of America’s preservation.
 Murray, Robert Bruce. Legal Cases of the Civil War. 2003. P. 155-159.
 McPherson, James. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. 1991. P. 28.
 McPherson, P. 28.