12 April, 2011

From Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

A very intelligent, if brief, argument against secession.

"It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our National Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered the executive branch of the Government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak—but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself."


Turin Hurinson said...

Hmmm. I don't think I buy it. Perhaps a state can't secede from a union without provocation, but if a state "can't" secede even when it is being oppressed and has no other way to escape oppression, then the legal system from which this "can't" comes is unjust, and I would say that the state has the right to leave *it*.

This is what the colonies did. The debate thus turns to, what does "oppressed" mean? We might well conclude that the South was not, in fact, being oppressed, but that doesn't mean you don't have to make the argument, which Lincoln doesn't, here at least.

Therese said...

Granted, the argument here is incomplete. This isn't all of his inaugural address, however, and it isn't every writing ever composed regarding the question. Moreover, this is a series of posts examining many aspects of the secession question, tending towards clarifying my own views on the matter (which are still inconclusive, despite my tendency to defend the north). There are many arguments to make against secession from both a practical, constitutional, and precedent-based standpoint. Assuming, of course, that the government isn't trampling on rights it's been installed to protect. That's clearly breach of contract on the government's part, and justifies secession. In fact in that case, I'd be unwilling to even call it secession, since the government would have dissolved itself.

When precisely that dissolution occurs is open to question, but I'm inclined to suspect that the legal election of a president (and eve if no one in the south voted for him, the constitutional requirements were still fulfilled) who happens to be personally opposed to slavery is cannot be interpreted as the government trampling on individual rights.

trevyn hubbs said...

Interesting. I just read all of the posts on the subject going back to this one. I think the later ones do a lot more to really flesh out Lincoln's views on sucession and the legal status of states in the union. One thing I read once (I cant find the source now) was one of Lincoln's letters in response to lawlessness in some of the western states. There had been dissnetion and rebellion against some or another technical rather than moral law, I think about trade or taxes. What I found interesting was that Lincoln asserted the position that no matter what the law said--and whether or not the law was entirely fair or justified-- it was the obligation of the people to obey it until it was legally changed through proper means. He spoke in broad terms which applied more thab to just this case, making his opinion clear that the law should be dutifuly obeyed even when its disagreeable. All else was anarchy.

When you look at his words about secession, you find much of the same political philosophy. Lincoln believed strongly in the rule of political process and order of established law. If a state were being 'oppressed' by the federal govt in some way, Lincoln would have probably thought the legal course of action would be an appeal to the Supreme Court or introduction of legislation in congress. He had enough faith in our system of checks and balances and legislative process to reason that any legitmate dispute about oppression could be properly handled without radical action. The system has worked for more than two centuries while hardly changing the underlying constitution, so I think Lincoln's preferance towards a moderately evolutionary system over a radically revolutionary one is well justified.

As far as your question "can govt legislate morality?", I think the first part of the answer is simple: yes. Morality was arguably the central issue that caused the colonies to declare independence, because England was seen as having no moral right to tax and rule from overseas. The new government, therefore, was one founded on moral principles, ones much like John Locke outlines-- the fundamental human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness /property. The biggest implication of the fact that government can and does pass laws about morality is that there must be some moral standard to substantiate. Now the question becomes: whose morals?