Message to Congress in Special Session

Image: Abraham Lincoln. Brady's National Photographic Portrait Galleries. ([c1903 from photo taken on May 16, 1861]) Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002714523/
President Abraham Lincoln rejected “the position that secession is consistent with the Constitution—is lawful and peaceful. It is not contended that there is any express law for it, and nothing should ever be implied as law which leads to unjust or absurd consequences.” What unjust and absurd consequences would follow from recognizing a legal right to secession, according to Lincoln?
Compare President Lincoln’s arguments that “our states have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a state out of the Union” and that the original thirteen states “passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence” with the argument of South Carolina’s Declaration of the Causes of Secession that the thirteen states were “free, sovereign, and independent states” after the Declaration of Independence and in forming the Articles of Confederation and in ratifying the U.S. Constitution. Which of these understandings of the founding of the U.S. Constitution is better supported?

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Introduction

President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) took numerous actions during his first few months in office in response to the attack on Fort Sumter (April 12–13, 1861) and for the purpose of prosecuting the war, but he eventually called Congress into special session to deal with the crisis. In a message to Congress on July 4, 1861, he defended the actions he had taken as commander in chief, and, in the portion of the address excerpted in this document, rejected the position that any state could rightfully leave the Union unilaterally. He acknowledged that in the Declaration of Independence “the ‘United Colonies’ were declared to be ‘free and independent States,’” but he held that this phrase referred to their status with regard to Great Britain, not to one another. Lincoln also rejected the view that the doctrine of secession could be deemed consistent with the Constitution. Against this view he argued that there is no “express law for it, and nothing should ever be implied as law which leads to unjust or absurd consequences,” which consequences he set out at length in his address to Congress.

Lincoln’s arguments in this message to Congress about the illegitimacy of secession followed arguments that he made in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, when he argued 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.” In that address, Lincoln found further support for the proposition that “the Union is perpetual” in “the history of the Union itself,” which, he noted, was “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.’” Lincoln concluded that portion of his First Inaugural by declaring: “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.”

President Abraham Lincoln

Source: Abraham Lincoln, Special Session Message, Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/202522


... It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called “secession” or “rebellion.” The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in and reverence for the history and government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is that any state of the Union may consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other state. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.

With rebellion thus sugar coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years,1 and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretense of taking their state out of the Union who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.

This sophism derives much, perhaps the whole, of its currency from the assumption that there is some omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a state—to each state of our federal Union. Our states have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a state out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence, and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas; and even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a state. The new ones only took the designation of states on coming into the Union, while that name was first adopted for the old ones in and by the Declaration of Independence. Therein the “United Colonies” were declared to be “free and independent States”; but even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterward abundantly show. The express plighting of faith by each and all of the original thirteen in the Articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual is most conclusive. Having never been states, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of “state rights,” asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the “sovereignty” of the states, but the word even is not in the national Constitution, nor, as is believed, in any of the state constitutions. What is a “sovereignty” in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it “a political community without a political superior”? Tested by this, no one of our states, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty; and even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union, by which act she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution to be for her the supreme law of the land. 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. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever of independence and liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the states, and, in fact, it created them as states. Originally some dependent colonies made the Union, and in turn the Union threw off their old dependence for them and made them states, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a state constitution independent of the Union. Of course it is not forgotten that all the new states framed their constitutions before they entered the Union, nevertheless dependent upon and preparatory to coming into the Union.

Unquestionably the states have the powers and rights reserved to them in and by the national Constitution; but among these surely are not included all conceivable powers, however mischievous or destructive, but at most such only as were known in the world at the time as governmental powers; and certainly a power to destroy the government itself had never been known as a governmental—as a merely administrative power. This relative matter of national power and state rights, as a principle, is no other than the principle of generality and locality. Whatever concerns the whole should be confided to the whole—to the general government—while whatever concerns only the state should be left exclusively to the state. This is all there is of original principle about it. Whether the national Constitution in defining boundaries between the two has applied the principle with exact accuracy is not to be questioned. We are all bound by that defining without question.

What is now combated is the position that secession is consistent with the Constitution—is lawful and peaceful. It is not contended that there is any express law for it, and nothing should ever be implied as law which leads to unjust or absurd consequences. The nation purchased with money the countries out of which several of these states were formed. Is it just that they shall go off without leave and without refunding? The nation paid very large sums (in the aggregate, I believe, nearly a hundred millions) to relieve Florida of the aboriginal tribes. Is it just that she shall now be off without consent or without making any return? The nation is now in debt for money applied to the benefit of these so-called seceding states in common with the rest. Is it just either that creditors shall go unpaid or the remaining states pay the whole? A part of the present national debt was contracted to pay the old debts of Texas. Is it just that she shall leave and pay no part of this herself?

Again: If one state may secede, so may another; and when all shall have seceded none is left to pay the debts. Is this quite just to creditors? Did we notify them of this sage view of ours when we borrowed their money? If we now recognize this doctrine by allowing the seceders to go in peace, it is difficult to see what we can do if others choose to go or to extort terms upon which they will promise to remain.

The seceders insist that our Constitution admits of secession. They have assumed to make a national constitution of their own, in which of necessity they have either discarded or retained the right of secession, as they insist it exists in ours. If they have discarded it, they thereby admit that on principle it ought not to be in ours. If they have retained it, by their own construction of ours they show that to be consistent they must secede from one another whenever they shall find it the easiest way of settling their debts or effecting any other selfish or unjust object. The principle itself is one of disintegration, and upon which no government can possibly endure.

If all the states save one should assert the power to drive that one out of the Union, it is presumed the whole class of seceder politicians would at once deny the power and denounce the act as the greatest outrage upon state rights. But suppose that precisely the same act, instead of being called “driving the one out,” should be called “the seceding of the others from that one,” it would be exactly what the seceders claim to do, unless, indeed, they make the point that the one, because it is a minority, may rightfully do what the others, because they are a majority, may not rightfully do. These politicians are subtle and profound on the rights of minorities. They are not partial to that power which made the Constitution and speaks from the Preamble, calling itself “we, the people.”... 

Footnotes
  1. 1. See John C. Calhoun, Fort Hill Address, July 16, 1831 (Vice President John C. Calhoun, Fort Hill Address, July 26, 1831).
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