Lincoln as Tyrant
Prior to the Civil War, the United States was used as a plural noun (even Andrew Jackson, speaking against secession, said “To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation.)
It was commonly recognized that the constitutional union was between independent and sovereign states, that the United States (plural) were separate states in union, and that any legal treaty can be renounced by any party if the other parties violate the terms of the agreement, thereby annulling it.
Emmerich de Vattel (1714-1767, Swiss philosopher, diplomat, and legal expert whose theories laid the foundation of modern international law and political philosophy) wrote that “Treaties contain promises that are perfect and reciprocal. If one of the allies fails in his engagements, the other may … disengage himself in his promises, and … break the treaty.” This argument was relied on by proponents of the Constitution and was featured by James Madison in Federalist No. 43.
It was also argued that the precedent set by the dissolution of the Articles of Confederation in order to enter into a constitutional republic, set the precedent for secession.
St. George Tucker (1752–1827, professor of law at the College of William and Mary, justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, and supporter of the emancipation of slaves) wrote in 1803:
“And since the seceding states [from the Articles of Confederation], by establishing a new constitution and form of federal government among themselves, without the consent of the rest, have shown that they consider the right to do so whenever the occasion may, in their opinion require it, we may infer that the right has not been diminished by any new compact which they may since have entered into, since none could be more solemn or explicit than the first, nor more binding upon the contracting parties.”
Secession Considerations in Early America
The election of 1800 saw Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party on the rise with the Federalists in decline. Federalists became alarmed at what they saw as threats from the Democratic-Republicans. The Louisiana Purchase was viewed as a violation of the agreement between the original thirteen states since it created the potential for numerous new states that would be dominated by the Democratic-Republicans. The impeachment of John Pickering, a Federalist district judge, by the Democratic-Republican dominated Congress and similar attacks by the Democratic-Republican Pennsylvania legislature against that state’s judiciary further alarmed Federalists. By 1804, the viable base of the Federalist Party had been reduced to the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware.
A few Federalists, led by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts in 1802, considered the creation of a separate New England confederation, possibly combining with lower Canada to form a pro-British nation.
The Embargo Act of 1807 was seen as a threat to the economy of Massachusetts and in late May 1808 the state legislature debated how the state should respond. Once again these debates generated isolated references to secession, but no clear cut plot ever materialized.
Spurred on by some Federalist party members, the Hartford Convention was convened on December 15, 1814, to address both the opposition to the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815) and the domination of the federal government by the Virginia political dynasty.
In the May 1844 edition of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison wrote “Address to the Friends of Freedom and Emancipation in the United States”. In this strongly disunionist editorial, Garrison wrote that the Constitution had been created “at the expense of the colored population of the country”. With southerners continuing to dominate the nation because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, it was time “to set the captive free by the potency of truth” and “secede from the government”. On the same day that this issue was published, the New England Anti-Slavery Convention endorsed the principles of disunion from slaveholders by a vote of 250–24.
Original Secession Movement
[from Thomas J. DiLorenzo, “Yankee Confederates: New England Secession Movements Prior to the War Between the States”]
Contrary to standard accounts, the birthplace of American secessionist sentiment was not Charleston, South Carolina in 1860, but the heart of the New England Yankee culture – Salem, Massachusetts – more than half a century before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. From 1800 to 1815, there were three serious attempts at secession orchestrated by New England Federalists, who believed that the policies of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, especially the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the national embargo of 1807, and the War of 1812, were so disproportionately harmful to New England that they justified secession.
If these New England Federalists had been southerners and said the things they said in 1861 rather than in 1803, they would have long ago been denigrated by historians as maniacal “fire eaters” or traitors. “I will rather anticipate a new confederacy, exempt from the corrupt and corrupting influence and oppression of the aristocratic Democrats of the South,” wrote the prominent Massachusetts Federalist politician and US Senator, Timothy Pickering, in 1803. “There will be … a separation,” he predicted, and “the white and black population will mark the boundary.” His colleague, Senator James Hillhouse, agreed, saying, “The Eastern States must and will dissolve the Union and form a separate government.” “The Northern States must be governed by Virginia or must govern Virginia, and there is no middle ground,” warned the conspiratorial Aaron Burr, who joined the New England Federalists in a secessionist plot (discussed below).
These “Yankee Confederates” were not an isolated band of radicals. They were among the leaders of the Federalist Party, many of whom had participated in the Revolutionary War and had even helped write the US Constitution. John Hancock and Samuel Adams are among the best known of the New England Federalists who, by the early nineteenth century, were reaching their twilight years. The push for secession came primarily from the younger generation of Federalist leaders, including George Cabot, Elbridge Gerry, Theophilus Parsons, Timothy Pickering, Theodore Sedgwick, John Quincy Adams, Fisher Ames, Harrison Gray Otis, Josiah Quincy, and Joseph Story, among others.
Their cause, moreover, was virtually identical to the southern Confederacy’s, a half century later: they were defending the principles of states’ rights and self-government from an overbearing federal government. They condemned the Jefferson administration as being plagued by “falsehood, fraud, and treachery” which induced “oppression and barbarity” and “ruin among the nations”.
They believed that the South – especially Virginia – was gaining too much wealth, power, and influence, and was using that influence against New England politically. Their complaints are virtually identical to John C. Calhoun’s concerns, decades later, about the unjust regional impacts of excessive federal power.
The Federalists also believed strongly that homogeneity of race and “ethnic purity” were essential ingredients of a successful republic. These New Englanders thought of themselves as “choice offspring of the choicest people, unpolluted by foreign blood”.
Given these strong feelings about the primacy and importance of ethnic purity, the Jeffersonian policy of expansionism – especially the Louisiana Purchase which incorporated “hordes of foreigners” into the US – was an abomination to the Federalists. Josiah Quincy was one of the most respected and influential of the Federalists. He warned that the Louisiana Purchase obligated the nation to assimilate “a number of French and Spanish subjects, whose habits, manners, and ideas of civil government are wholly foreign to republican institutions”. Quincy felt so strongly about this that he clearly stated that if the purchase were consummated the only recourse for New England would be secession. For the purchase meant that
“the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved; that the States which compose it are free from their moral obligation; and that, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, to prepare definitely for a separation, amicably if they can, violently if they must.”
In a letter to George Cabot, Timothy Pickering wrote of the “depravity” of Jefferson’s “plan of destruction” and concluded that “the principles of our Revolution [of 1776] point to the remedy – a separation. That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt”. Pickering believed that the different cultures of the North and South were inherently incompatible and would only lead to perpetual political conflict, if not violence. “The people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West.”
All during this episode, virtually no one questioned the right of any state to secede. Any objections that were raised were strictly utilitarian – the timing was not right, the economic benefits might have been overestimated, and so on. Jefferson himself announced in his first inaugural address that “if there be any among us who wish to dissolve the 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 free to combat it.”
Jefferson was the co-author (with James Madison) of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which suggested that “where powers were assumed by the national government which had not been granted by the States, nullification is the rightful remedy” and that every state has an original, natural right “to nullify of its own authority all assumptions of power by others, within its limits”. Thus, both major political parties believed in the inviolable states’ rights of nullification and secession in the early nineteenth century.
Roger Griswold, the governor of Connecticut (sounding just like a southern secessionist), stated “The balance of power under the present government is decidedly in favor of the Southern States. . . . The extent and increasing population of those States must for ever secure to them the preponderance which they now possess.” He also complained that New Englanders were paying “the principal part of the expenses of government” without receiving commensurate benefits, which led him to conclude that “there can be no safety to the Northern States without a separation from the confederacy [the Union]”.
In contrast, John C. Calhoun, the infamous South Carolina secessionist, fought for the nullification of the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations”, which harmed Southern trade with Europe, calling it “an instrument of monopoly and oppression”, to preserve the Union. Calhoun reiterated Jefferson’s thoughts on nullification when he declared that nullification should always remain a tool of the states because it was the best known vehicle for arresting “the alarming growth of political corruption and to save the Constitution, the Union and Liberty of these states”.
In the early nineteenth century, the Constitution allowed that five slaves could be counted as three whites for the purpose of determining congressional representation. This procedure provided the “Yankee Confederates” with yet another rationale for secession: they believed this arrangement artificially stacked the electoral decks against them. As Josiah Quincy claimed,
“The slave representation is the cause of all the difficulties we labor under… [Because of this arrangement,] the southern states have an influence in our national councils, altogether disproportionate to their wealth, strength, and resources.”
The Federalists never voiced moral objections to the three-fifths clause. In fact, they argued that blacks should be counted as zero, rather than three-fifths of a white man, for purposes of congressional representation. Further, they did not make any case whatsoever that southern slavery should be ended.
If the Federalists thought the three-fifths clause of the Constitution was oppressive, they would have considered the abolition of slavery in the South – and the extension of the franchise to blacks – an unmitigated disaster. As historian James Banner has concluded: “Freed, it appeared, the Negro was more of a political threat than enslaved. What the Federalists wanted, and what their assaults upon the three-fifths clause were designed to gain, was not the abolition of slavery but the abolition of Negro representation.”
The Right of Secession
Throughout these episodes, historian Edward Powell has written, “the right of a State … to withdraw from the Union was … not disputed.” There was indeed virtually universal support – from Republicans and Federalists alike – for the right of secession. Moreover, this belief in the right to secession was alive and well in the North at the outset of the War Between the States. Contrary to what most Americans have been taught, many – perhaps most – northerners believed the South should have been permitted to peacefully secede, however unwise they thought secession might have been for the South. This belief is the legacy of the early-nineteenth-century New England secessionists.
- On 10 November 1860, the Albany (New York) Atlas and Argus editorialized that “we sympathize with and justify the South” because “their rights have been invaded to the extreme limit possible within the forms of the Constitution”. If the South wanted to secede, the editors wrote, “we would applaud them and wish them God-Speed”. They declared, eleven days later, that “like it or not, the cotton States will secede”. The government will not then “go to pieces”, but Southerners will be allowed to regain their “sense of independence and honor”.
- On 24 November 1860, the Concord (New Hampshire) Democratic Standard complained of “fanatics and demagogues of the North” who “waged war on the institutions of the South” and appealed for “concession of the just rights of our Southern brethren”.
- Two days later, the New York Journal of Commerce condemned the “meddlesome spirit” of people of the North who wanted to “seek to regulate and control” people in “other communities”.
- On 13 November 1860, the Bangor (Maine) Daily Union defended southern secessionists by explaining that the Union “depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people” of each state, and “when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone”. If military force is used, then a state can only be held “as a subject province” and can never be “a co-equal member of the American Union”.
- On the same day, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle clearly explained that “any violation of the constitution by the general government, deliberately persisted in would relieve the state or states injured by such violation from all legal and moral obligations to remain in the union or yield obedience to the federal government”. And while the editors saw “no real cause for secession on the part of the South, should any states attempt it there is nothing to be done but let them go”.
- The Cincinnati Daily Commercial echoed similar sentiments by advocating that the southern states be allowed to “work out their salvation or destruction in their own way” rather than “to attempt, through forcible coercion, to save them in spite of themselves”.
- The Davenport (Iowa) Democrat and News, on 17 November 1860, editorialized against secession, but in its editorial it noted that it was apparently in the minority in the North, where most of “the leading and most influential papers of the Union” believe “that any State of the Union has a right to secede”.
- One such paper was the Providence (Rhode Island) Evening Press, which wrote on that same day that sovereignty “necessarily includes what we call the ‘right of secession'” and “this right must be maintained” unless we would establish “colossal despotism” against which the founding fathers “uttered their solemn warnings”.
- The Cincinnati Daily Press repeated this sentiment on 21 November 1860: “We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy to dissolve its political relations with the others and assume an independent position is absolute – that, in other words, if South Carolina wants to go out of the Union, she has the right to do so, and no party or power may justly say her nay.” This, the editors surmised, is what the Declaration of Independence means when it says that whenever government becomes destructive of the protection of lives, liberties, and the pursuit of happiness, then “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish” their government and “to institute a new government”.
- The New York Daily Tribune made the exact same point on 17 December 1860, adding that if tyranny and despotism justified the American Revolution of 1776, then “we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861”.
Once South Carolina seceded on 20 December 1860, dozens of northern editorialists viewed it as a confirmation of the principle of sovereignty and self-government, while others, like the Indianapolis Daily Journal, said “thank God that we have had a good riddance of bad rubbish”.
- The Kenosha (Wisconsin) Democrat wrote on 11 January 1861, that secession was “the very germ of liberty” and declared that “the right of secession inheres to the people of every sovereign state”.
- The New York Journal of Commerce, sensing the war fever in Washington, reminded its readers on 12 January 1861, that by opposing secession, northerners would be changing the nature of government “from a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism where one part of the people are slaves. Such is the logical deduction from the policy of the advocates of force.”
- The Washington (D.C.) Constitution concurred, stating that the use of force against South Carolina would be “the extreme of wickedness and the acme of folly.” It further opined the desire “that all the Southern States will secede”.
- On 5 February 1861, the New York Tribune characterized Lincoln’s latest speech as “the arguments of the tyrant – force, compulsion and power.” “Nine out of ten of the people of the North”, the paper surmised, were opposed to forcing South Carolina to remain in the Union.
- “We ought to let them go”, said the Greenfield (Massachusetts) Gazette and Courier, once additional southern states began to follow South Carolina’s lead.
- The Detroit Free Press declared on 19 February 1861, that “an attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful, could produce nothing but evil – evil unmitigated in character and appalling in extent”.
- The New York Daily Tribune argued once again that “the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration … is that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed”. Therefore, if the southern states want to secede, “they have a clear right to do so”.
- On 21 March 1861, the New York Times intoned “that there is a growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go”.
- “The people are recognizing the government of the Confederates”, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial wrote on 23 March 1861, and “there is room for several flourishing nations on this continent; the sun will shine brightly and the rivers run as clear…when we acknowledge the Southern Confederacy as before”.
- “Public opinion in the North”, said the Hartford (Connecticut) Daily Courant on 12 April 1861, “seems to be gradually settling down in favor of the recognition of the New Confederacy by the Federal Government.” The thought of a “bloody and protracted civil war…is abhorrent to all”.
There were, of course, northern papers that supported going to war over secession, but Lincoln had anything but strong public support when he decided to wage total war on the South. His war dictated the death of one of the most important rights of a free nation – the right to secession – as well as the deaths of 618,000 young men.
Just 85 years after a Revolution (or, more accurately, a war of secession from the British Empire) was fought by American colonists against the tyranny of the Crown, “Honest Abe” Lincoln was so determined to prevent southern state secession and preserve the Union at any cost, that he was willing to re-institute executive tyranny in order to accomplish his ends.
Lincoln was quite clear about his motivations for war. On August 22, 1862, just a few weeks before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote a letter in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:
“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
At one time, Lincoln was a firm believer in the right of secession. On the floor of Congress on January 13, 1848, Lincoln intoned:
“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and to form one that suits them better. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may make their own of such territory as they inhabit. More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revolutionize, putting down a minority intermingling with or near them who oppose their movement.”
He has also been a staunch defender of law and order. In a speech delivered on January 27, 1837, Lincoln proclaimed:
“Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others, as the patriots of ‘76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, and so the support of the Constitution and laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor – let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, in spelling books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”
But, by 1861, President Lincoln was willing to use his executive powers to dismantle the Constitution, trample on the separation of powers, and impose martial law in order to preserve not only the Union but to guarantee that it will become a Union of Free Labor.
There were ten distinct violations of the Constitution by Abraham Lincoln:
- Coercion in 1861 (Article IV)
- Laws of Neutrality – Trent Affair (Article VI, Clause 2 – Violation of international Law)
- Writ of Habeas corpus Suspended (Article I, Section IX, Clause 2)
- War Declared Without the Consent of Congress, 1861 (Article I, Section VIII, Clause 11, 12)
- Emancipation Proclamation (Article IV, Section III, Clause 2)
- West Virginia Made a State (Article IV, Section III, Clause 1)
- Freedom of speech denied. Vallandigham Imprisoned in Ohio (Amendment One)
- Blockading ports of states that were held by the Federal Government to be still in the Union.
- Liberty of the Press Denied (Amendment One)
- Violation of the Fugitive Slave Law (Article IV, Section II, Clause 3)
Lincoln’s own contemporaries in the North believed he violated the Constitution and his oath of office.
Godwin, of The Nation, says: “The first real breach in the Constitution was President Lincoln’s using his war power to abolish slavery.
Thaddeus Stevens Stated: “I will not stultify myself by supposing that Mr. Lincoln has any warrant in the Constitution for dismembering Virginia.” (Lincoln severed West Virginia as a “free state” from the rest.)
A. K. McClure, his friend, said: “Mr. Lincoln swore to obey the Constitution, but in eighteen months violated it by his Emancipation Proclamation.”
James Ford Rhodes (American industrialist and historian whose History of the Civil War won the Pulitzer Prize) said: ”There was no authority for the Proclamation by the Constitution and laws – nor was there any statute that warranted it.”
The abolitionist Wendell Phillips, at the Cooper Institute, said in 1864: “I judge Mr. Lincoln by his acts, his violations of the law, his overthrow of liberty in the Northern States. I judge Mr. Lincoln by his words, his deeds, and so judging him, I am unwilling to trust Abraham Lincoln with the future of this country.”
Percy Gregg said: “Lincoln never hesitated to violate the Constitution when he desired. The Chief Justice testified to this. Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus in 1861; he allowed West Virginia to be formed from Virginia contrary to the Constitution; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation without consulting his Cabinet and in violation of the Constitution.”
Charles Sumner, MA Senator and radical Republican, said: “When Lincoln reinforced Fort Sumter and called for 75,000 men without the consent of Congress, it was the greatest breach ever made in the Constitution, and would hereafter give the President the liberty to declare war whenever he wished without the consent of Congress.”
Lincoln had no respect for the decisions of the Supreme Court, as the highest law in the land. As J. G. Holland pointed out: “The South stood by the decisions of the Supreme Court – The North did not and Lincoln did not.”
In Lincoln’s inaugural address, he said: “If the decisions of the Supreme Court are irrevocably fixed, then people cease to be their own masters, and practically resign government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”
To pander to the South’s vote, he openly said that any state had the constitutional right to secede if her rights were interfered with. Yet as soon as he was elected, he denied this and began to plan to coerce the seceding states back into the Union. He had openly said that coercion was not constitutional, and yet he called for 75,000 men to begin the coercion without the consent of his Cabinet or Congress. He gave as his excuse that he could not afford to do without the revenue from the Southern states, and must prevent their withdrawal, right or wrong.
While insisting that the Southern states were still in the Union, on July 19, 1861, Lincoln declared a blockade, which brought untold suffering and privation on the people of the South. No nation can blockade her own ports. When England and France declared neutrality, Lincoln, fearing they would later acknowledge the seceding states as a Confederacy, issued his Emancipation Proclamation in the hope of conciliating them, though he acknowledged that he thought it would result in the massacre of women and children in the South.
When the South, not desiring war, made every effort for peace, he blocked every effort that was made. When he learned of the Crittenden Resolutions before he was inaugurated, he sent word to every Republican member of Congress to vote against them. When he learned of the PEACE Convention presided over by ex-President Tyler, he sent Salmon P. Chase to represent him, instructed to vote against every compromise, especially against the return of fugitive slaves. And yet this man was the man who had said in Peoria, Illinois in 1854: “The slaveholder has a legal and moral right to his slaves. Fairly and fully I will give them any legislation for reclaiming their fugitive slaves. The master has the right to seize the runaway slave in every state in the Union.”
The alleged conspirators to the Lincoln assassination were tried before a military tribunal, even though they were civilians, under the pretext that hostilities had not ceased and it amounted to an act of rebellion against the United States. The military prosecutors did not release their evidence or witness list to the defense attorneys, and asked for a summary trial before the defense had a chance to prepare their case.
Over the years, critics have attacked the verdicts, sentences, and procedures of the 1865 Military Commission. These critics have called the sentences unduly harsh, and criticized the rule allowing the death penalty to be imposed with a two-thirds vote of Commission members. The hanging of Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the United States, has been a particular focus of criticism. Critics also have complained about the standard of proof, the lack of opportunity for defense counsel to adequately prepare for the trial, the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, and the Commission’s rule forbidding the prisoners from testifying on their own behalf [presaging the Bush and Obama military tribunals].
Attorney Frederick Aiken, on the morning of July 7, asked a District of Columbia court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the military tribunal had no jurisdiction over his client. The court issued the writ at 3 AM, and it was served on General Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock was ordered to produce Surratt by 10 AM. General Hancock sent an aide to General John F. Hartranft, who commanded the Old Capitol Prison, ordering him not to admit any United States marshal (as this would prevent the marshal from serving a similar writ on Hartranft). President Johnson was informed that the court had issued the writ, and promptly cancelled it at 11:30 AM under the authority granted to him by the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863. General Hancock and United States Attorney General James Speed personally appeared in court and informed the judge of the cancellation of the writ.
What might explain “honest Abe’s” duplicity, cunning and hypocrisy in employing absolute tyranny to wage war against the Southern states and use the Emancipation Proclamation as a tool of coercion, is that Lincoln saw himself as a vehicle for God’s will. Lincoln wrote to himself in September 1862, “God wills this contest and wills that it shall not end yet.” Lincoln came to understand the War as God’s retribution – against both the North and the South – for 200 years of slavery.