Friday, December 13, 2013

Rethinking "Rethinkin' Lincoln"

In a previous blog post, “Rethinkin; Lincoln,” (
in January 2011, I pretty much trashed Abraham Lincoln and said because he put such a high value on preserving the Union that he gave it a higher priority than even ending slavery.  I had indicated that slavery was destined to end eventually anyway and that since there was nothing in the Constitution to prevent a state from seceding from the Union, President Lincoln should have let the eleven southern states go that had seceded from the Union because it would have prevented the Civil War, a war that has cost more American deaths than all the other wars in history combined.  Since I published that blog post, I have come to the conclusion that the Constitution, although it does not state so as clearly as I would have liked, does forbid states from seceding, and that President Lincoln’s oath to support and defend the Constitution required him to do what he could to bring the rebellious states back into the Union.  There is still that inconvenient fact that the Civil War cost over 600,000 lives and caused unimaginable suffering.  If Lincoln had known that the war would last so long and cause so much death and suffering, he might have decided differently.  However, at the beginning of the war, nearly everyone on both sides thought that the war would be relatively short and hardly anyone could have predicted the suffering it would cause.  I was wrong to second-guess his decision to bring the Confederate states back into the Union by force.

In his book, America’s Constitution, Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale University, makes a convincing case that the framers of the Constitution intended the federal government that they were creating to be an indivisible nation which no state had a right to secede from once the state became a part of the nation.  The Constitution begins with the words “We the People” rather than “We the states” or “We the delegates from the states” to indicate that the relationship between the states was to change from a confederation of independent, sovereign states to a federal republic in which each state sacrifices a portion of its sovereignty and its right to break free from the union of states in exchange for the benefits of being in the union.   At the other end of the Constitution, it states that it will become effective after being approved by conventions in the states rather than by state legislatures.  In other words, it was to be approved by the people, or at least by persons elected by the people for the sole purpose of deciding whether the Constitution should be ratified.  In other words, the new federal government under the Constitution was not intended to be a compact among the states as the Congress under the Articles of Confederation had been.  During the period between when the Constitution was originally proposed and the time when all thirteen of the original states ratified it, both the Federalists who argued on behalf of ratification and the Anti-Federalists who argued against it stated in their arguments that they understood that once a state became a part of the form of government that the Constitution was creating there was no turning back.  In fact, that was one of the main points in the argument of each side.  They agreed that the union was to be indivisible; what they disagreed on was what that indivisibility implied.  The Federalists argued that it was a means of protecting the freedoms of Americans; the Anti-Federalists argued that it was a threat to those freedoms.  Eventually, the Federalists prevailed, but not before an implicit agreement was reached to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution after it had been ratified to protect  the freedoms fo individual Americans from the threats implied by the creation of a more powerful national government.

Although he stated that he gave a higher priority to preserving the Union than he did to ending slavery, Abraham Lincoln was a strong opponent of slavery.  His Emancipation Proclamation freed, if not all the slaves in the United States, at least the slaves that he had authority to free in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States.  The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the states that were still in rebellion against the United States and not yet under control of the Union forces.  That excluded the slaves in the slaves states that had not left the Union, but the Constitution gave the President no authority to free those slaves.

By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln would still be considered a racist.  He indicated that he believed that European Americans were generally superior to African Americans and that the races should remain separate and should not intermarry.  However, he did believe that all people, without exception, should have equal rights under the law and that no person had the right to enslave any other person.  We have learned from subsequent history that there is no significant difference between the races and that there should be no laws to enforce segregation of races.  Race is very much an artificial concept.  It may take a while, but we do learn from history, and have more history to learn from than Abraham Lincoln did.  Abraham Lincoln was not an angel and had his faults, but he was a remarkable and heroic human being and I owe an apology to his memory.