The Real Lincoln: An Unconstitutional Dictator

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most revered president in American history, save the nearly unassailable George Washington. He is credited with saving the Union and even ending slavery. To question the rightness of his actions is to court the fury of those on both sides of the proverbial aisle. But, as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” While our wish may be that Lincoln was a constitutional hero, those stubborn facts present another picture. For those willing to submit their opinions to truth (a noble and Christian habit), I encourage you to carefully read Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln. His book is a poignant critique of Abraham Lincoln’s actions leading up to, during, and after the Civil War.

In this post, in order to whet your appetite, I give a brief overview of one of the main reasons Abraham Lincoln was an unconstitutional dictator. (To clarify, the word dictator means one who has total, or near total, power over a country, typically one who has obtained control by force. In fact, even some Lincoln-supporters admit he was a dictator, but try to justify his actions—but, for more on that interesting side note, read DiLorenzo’s book.)

At the heart of Lincoln’s unconstitutional war and actions lies his abandonment of the very principle which established the United States of America: the right of the people to freely secede and form new government. He ignored the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by denying that the states had the right to secede.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (Declaration of Independence)

Years after writing these illustrious words, Thomas Jefferson still maintained that it was the right of the people to secede if they so desired, even if it was not the wisest thing to do in every circumstance. He boldly stated in his first inaugural address in 1801:

If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this 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 insisted that those who want to secede should be free to as a “monument” to the liberty and safety that is to exist in a free nation. Fifteen years later, in 1816, Jefferson was of the same opinion still. In a letter to William H. Crawford, he wrote:

If any state in the union will declare that it prefers separation with the 1st alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying “let us separate.” I would rather the states should withdraw, which are for unlimited commerce & war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace & agriculture.

Jefferson’s sentiments were not unique to him. When the states ratified the Constitution in 1787 and 1788, “no state agreed to enter a perpetual union” (DiLorenzo). New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia, in their ordinances of ratification (of the Constitution) even went so far as to explicitly reserve the right to secede from the Union—a Union they were freely entering. For example, the text of the Ratification of the Constitution by Virginia (June 26, 1788) includes the following section:

[We] do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.

Even James Madison, in trying to assuage the fears of the Anti-Federalists that the Constitution would lead to a trampling of states’ rights, maintained that the ratifying of the Constitution would be made by free and independent states, states who would then retain the right to leave said union:

This assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. (Federalist No. 39)

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, made the following argument regarding the right of secession in an 1839 speech:

The indissoluble link of union between the people of the several states of this confederated nation, is after all, not in the right, but in the heart. If the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it,) when the affections of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred, the bands of political association will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint. Then will be the time for reverting to the precedents which occurred at the formation and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect union, by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the centre.

We could go on. The evidence is overwhelming: “The United States were founded by secessionists and began with a document, the Declaration [of Independence], that justified the secession of the American states…From the very beginning, the right of secession was viewed by Americans as the last check on the potential abuse of power by the central government” (DiLorenzo).

Yes, even Abraham Lincoln, in 1848, argued for the right of the people to shake off an existing government:

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, than can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, several years before the Civil War, the New England states seriously considered secession. There was no debate as to whether or not they had the right to secede, but only whether or not it would be wise to secede. In the end, they narrowly voted to remain in the United States.

William Rawle, a Philadelphia born Constitutional attorney, wrote the textbook on the Constitution that was used by cadets at West Point prior to the Civil War. Rawle was a close friend of George Washington and a member of the Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He firmly believed that there was an implied right of secession in the Constitution, commenting that “it depends on the State itself to retain or abolish the principle of representation, because it depends on the State itself whether it continues a member of the Union…The secession of a State from the Union depends on the will of the people.”

All of this Lincoln knew right well. Nevertheless, when the Southern states seceded, he ignored it all wholesale. In his first inaugural address in 1861, he asserted the following:

I hold that, in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the union of these States is perpetual….It follows….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.

Where Lincoln acquired the authority to make such a statement is a mystery. Later that year, he added the following: “The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this they can only do so against law and by revolution.” This directly contradicted Jefferson, Madison, and virtually all of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln was hellbent on “preserving the Union,” Declaration and Constitution be damned.

When the Southern states peacefully seceded from the Union, Lincoln refused to acknowledge what he (in his 1848 speech) called the “sacred right” of the people to “shake off the existing government.” Instead, he went to war. In Lincoln-fashion, he went to war without congressional approval, “trusting that Congress would readily ratify” his decision.

In chapter five of The Real Lincoln, DiLorenzo cites James Ostrowski’s brilliant thought experiment. The thought experiment goes like this: What would the attendees of the Constitutional Convention (of 1787) have to had agreed to in order for Lincoln’s actions to be legal and constitutional? Ostrowski, a student of law, answers the question.

In order for Lincoln’s acts to be agreed upon by the attendees of the Constitutional Convention—which barely ratified the Constitution as it was—they would have had to have agreed to the following stipulations:

1. No state may ever secede from the Union for any reason

2. If any state attempts to secede, the federal government shall invade such a state with sufficient military force to suppress the secession

3. The federal government may require all states to raise militias to be used to suppress the seceding state or states

4. After suppressing the secession, the federal government may rule by martial law until such time that the state accepts its permanent federal supremacy (as occurred during Reconstruction)

5. After the secession is suppressed, the federal government may force the states to adopt new state constitutions, imposed upon them by federal military authority (as also occurred during Reconstruction)

6. The president may, on his own authority, and without consulting any other branch of government, suspend the Bill of Rights and the writ of habeas corpus (as Lincoln did in first months of his presidency)

[Cited from The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo]

James Ostrowski concludes: “This is a fair summary of what Lincoln said the Constitution had to say about secession.” DiLorenzo correctly adds: “It is inconceivable that such amendments would ever have had the remotest possibility of being adopted by the Constitutional Convention.” Lincoln did all this, and more. He locked up numerous newspaper editors in the North who disagreed with his war policies. David Stewart notes how, in Maryland, Lincoln “suspended the writ of habeas corpus…while federal agents arrested Baltimore’s mayor and head of police, several newspaper editors, and two dozen state legislators.” Harold Holzer elaborates:

When that summer the pro-secession Baltimore Exchange editorialized that “the war of the South is a war of the people, supported by the people,” while the “war of the North” was “the war of a party…carried out by political schemers,” military authorities shut down the paper, arrested editors W.W. Glenn and Francis Key Howard—the latter, a grandson of the author of the National Anthem—and shipped them off to prison without trial.

This sort of unconstitutional tyranny and suppression of the freedom of speech became a common occurrence under Lincoln’s military dictatorship. In April of 1863, General Ambrose Burnside, no doubt with Lincoln’s full endorsement, issued General Order No. 38, which stated:

The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.

Clement Vallandigham, leader of the Ohio Democratic Party, opposed this order on grounds that it violated the right to the freedom of speech. Ohio History Central reports that in a speech “Vallandigham went on to chastise President Lincoln for not seeking a peaceable and immediate end to the Civil War and for allowing General Burnside to throw out citizen’s rights under a free government.” As a result of his “treason,” Vallandigham was deported to the Southern states.

In addition to all of this, Lincoln carefully controlled the war in the South, endorsing a devastating policy of destroying towns, plundering private property, and committing atrocities against civilians in order to break the spirit and economy of the South. All of these actions went against international laws of war.

Some people like to assert that since Lincoln’s goal was to end slavery, all his unconstitutional actions were justified. That’s a nice thought, but the problem is that Lincoln’s goal was not to end slavery. In a previous post, I wrote about how the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free any slaves. Furthermore, Lincoln made it painstakingly clear that he was happy for slavery to continue if it meant “keeping the union together.” The fact is, Lincoln-supporters cannot claim the “moral high ground” because Lincoln was not seeking to end slavery. Even if he was, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he had the authority to abandon the Constitution. It is true that the sin of slavery may have brought God’s judgment in the form of civil war, but that is one of those secret things that belong to the Lord. It is certainly a pattern that God judges wicked nations using other wicked nations. Nevertheless, God holds both nations responsible for their actions. Furthermore, both the North and the South were guilty regarding slavery. In what might be one of the greatest (and tragic) ironies of history, it seems likely that had Lincoln allowed the South to peaceably secede, the institution of slavery would have crumbled under its own weight as the Underground Railroad would have increased tenfold as the North would no longer have been inclined to return any slaves to the South. Additionally, every other major nation had already ended slavery without a war. Lincoln, however, had to do it his way, destroying over half a million lives in the process.

Despite all these facts (or perhaps because of them), Lincoln was able to strong-arm the South into returning the the Union. His subsequent “martyrdom” at the hands of John Wilkes Booth led to him becoming a larger than life figure, soon to be co-opted by both political parties in the name of federal government expansion. Today, despite the hard work of writers such as DiLorenzo and Ostrowski, many people are unaware of the facts of Lincoln’s presidency. Our desire, however, ought to be to know the truth, however unpleasant it may be, in order that we may better understand the past, the present, and the future challenges that await us.

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