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Lincoln’s Spectacular Lie

by Karen De Coster

The notion that Lincoln’s Union preceded the states is a tall tale. Author Tom DiLorenzo, in his celebrated new book, The Real Lincoln, calls it Lincoln’s spectacular lie, as so named by Emory University philosopher, Donald Livingston.

The War Between the States was fought, in Lincoln’s mind, to preserve the sanctity of centralization powered by a strong and unchecked federal government. Only through such an established order could Lincoln do his Whig friends the honor of advancing The American System, a mercantilist arrangement that spawned corporate welfare, a monetary monopoly for the Feds, and a protectionist tariff approach that stymied free traders everywhere.

This power role for the Feds, as envisioned by Lincoln, had no room for the philosophy of the earlier Jeffersonians, who in 1798, were declaring that states’ rights were supreme. Both Madison and Jefferson, in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, legitimized the concept of state sovereignty via the policy of nullification, an inherent right for states to declare federal acts invalid if unconstitutional. And before that, let it be duly noted that the right to secede is, as DiLorenzo says, “not expressly prohibited by the Constitution.”

Lincoln, however, believed that secession was basically an act of treason. To him, the glory of the Union was based upon a holier-than-thou view of the core elites who would run the Washington Machine, doling out the federal largesse to its friends and political supporters, those mostly being Northern manufacturers and merchants. Therefore, the Southern secessionist movement and its claim of self-rule violated the Lincolnian principle of nationalization and coercive law in his move toward complete centralization. So what was Lincoln to do?

Lincoln had to stamp out Southern Independence, and would start with a demonization of secession as “an ingenious sophism.” DiLorenzo focuses on the two political arguments Lincoln used against secession, one being that secession inevitably meant anarchy, which therefore violated the principle of majority rule. As DiLorenzo points out, the founders of our system of government “clearly understood that political decisions under majority rule are always more to the liking of the voters in a smaller political unit.” The other Lincoln argument against peaceful secession is that allowing the Southern states to secede would lead to more secession, which in turn leads to anarchy. Clearly, that is a crass argument that would not stand the test of time.

“The advocates of secession”, says DiLorenzo, “always understood that it stood as a powerful check on the expansive proclivities of government and that even the threat of secession or nullification could modify the federal government’s inclination to overstep its constitutional bounds.”

DiLorenzo takes the reader on a summarized journey of secessionist history, from the earliest parting by colonialists from the wrath of King George, to the New England secessionists, who pre-dated the Southern movement by over a half-century. Oddly enough, it was the New England Federalists that had first threatened to dissolve the Union because of an intense hatred of Southern aristocracy. Beginning with the election of Jefferson to the Presidency, an intense battle over individual morality, immigration, trade restrictions, and regional principles sparked a division between the Puritan Northeast and a more freewheeling and influential South. In order to eliminate all political ties, the Northeasterners tried in vain to break the bonds of Union, and the movement lasted until the failed Secessionist Convention in 1814, as the War of 1812 came to a close.

As the author points out, during the entire New England ordeal, there is virtually no literature to be found that supports the view that the inherent right to secession was non-existent. It was, in fact, really never questioned.

Eventually, Lincoln needed a trump card and turned to using the institution of slavery as the emotional taffy-pull to rouse the citizenry for a long and bloody war. Though, indeed, the earliest words of Lincoln defy this purpose as he consistently reveled in the triumph of the all-powerful centralized state that would one day achieve “national greatness.” Even DiLorenzo doesn’t attempt to define what this means, but only describes those words as having some sort of “alleged mystical value.” The Lincoln war machine was thus set in motion, with the ends of an Empire run by chosen elites justifying the means of tyranny.

The states, in a Lincolnian democracy, would be forever underneath the footprint of Union hegemony.

April 29, 2002

Karen De Coster, CPA, is a paleolibertarian freelance writer, graduate student in Austrian Economics, and a business professional from Michigan. She is writing her first book, which is a treatise against all things statist. See her Mises Institute archive for more online articles.

Copyright © 2002

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