Should Abraham Lincoln have let the South secede? Some argue that the nation would have been better off if he had done so, because the United States is in reality two countries, the North and the South.
The challenge facing the nation in the secession crisis of 1860-61 resembles one confronting us today: the failure (on both sides of the ideological divide) to accept the results of legitimate elections. Southerners’ refusal to acquiesce in Lincoln’s victory at the polls — and his subsequent refusal to appease them, either by abandoning his party’s antislavery principles or by accepting secession — caused the Civil War. To allow the South to break up, the Union would, he thought, discredit and undermine the very concept of democracy.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln maintained that “secession is the essence of anarchy.” To reject the outcome of democratic elections ineluctably leads either to anarchy or to despotism. The “only true sovereign of a free people,” he insisted, is a government elected by a majority of voters, a government that is held in check by constitutional limitations (like the Bill of Rights). Since there is no such thing as a permanent majority, the losing side in an election can become the winner later in keeping with changes in “popular opinions and sentiments.” The alternatives to such an approach are either unanimity, which “is impossible,” or minority rule, which is “wholly inadmissible.” Therefore, “rejecting the majority principle,” all that remains is “anarchy, or despotism in some form.”
Lincoln had something like the following scenario in mind: Once the government permitted the losing side in an election to withdraw from the Union, the nation would soon be divided not into just two but many independent countries.
In time, those small independent units would be at war with one another until, finally, a strong man emerged promising to restore law and order if the people would only grant him absolute power. He gains their assent, for they desire first and foremost a government that protects their personal safety and their property. Thus “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would “perish from the earth,” to use the language that Lincoln employed at Gettysburg.
Early in the war, Lincoln told a White House secretary that he considered “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.” It was up to his administration to “settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.” If the South were to win the war, “it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”
Thus the Civil War was, in Lincoln’s view, above all a fight to vindicate democracy. To Congress, he explained that the stakes involved were high, for “this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States.” Indeed, it affected “the whole family of man,” for the secession of the South “forces us to ask: ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?’ ‘Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?’ ”
Speaking extemporaneously, Lincoln told a regiment of Union troops: “It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government.” That government was more than a set of rules and institutions; it was also one that allowed people to rise socially and economically without regard to their ancestry or other immutable characteristics. “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
In 1860, Lincoln had told an audience in New Haven that his desire for Americans to enjoy social and economic opportunity was not confined to whites. He wanted “every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition.” That implied opposition not only to slavery in the South but also to anti-Black discrimination in the North, not just in Illinois (with its infamous Black Code) but also in that region’s few pockets of relative racial enlightenment (like Boston).
Lincoln’s refusal to tolerate secession seems especially relevant at a time when the growing unwillingness to abide by the result of elections — which in his day meant secession and today means implicitly threatening to burn down cities, or attacking the US Capitol, or undermining the legitimacy of a duly elected president by the use fraudulent evidence — arguably threatens the stability of the Republic now more seriously than at any time since 1860.
Michael Burlingame, who holds the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield, is the author of several books on Lincoln, including most recently “The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Equality.”