Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month


The Imaginary Abe
A Reply to Harry Jaffa’s
In Re Jack Kemp v. Joe Sobran

by Joseph Sobran

Harry Jaffa says Jack Kemp and I have been conducting an “uncivil war” over Abraham Lincoln’s character. Well, for my part, I deny it. Kemp called me one of the current “assassins of Lincoln’s character,” which I thought was a little rabid, inasmuch as I had given Lincoln praise as well as criticism in the speech Kemp referred to (without having heard or read it, naturally). Jaffa doesn’t say how I was “uncivil” in defending myself by quoting Lincoln. I don’t consider it character assassination to distinguish the real Lincoln from the Mythic Lincoln.

But before I get into details, let me go right to the real point. In the book I’m now writing about Lincoln, I argue for the right of secession. And I also argue that if there is a right of secession, it follows that Lincoln had no authority to suppress secession by force.

Jaffa thinks that he and Lincoln have, between them, demolished the case for secession. Far from it. To make their case, both of them have had to misread the American founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence.

What, exactly, did the Declaration of Independence declare to be independent? Thirteen states — “free and independent states.” Now in 1776 and long afterward, a state was by definition free, independent, and sovereign. If it formed a confederacy with other states, it could withdraw — secede — reassert its independence — at any time, because a confederacy was, again by definition, a voluntary association of sovereigns. And the Declaration said nothing about a “Union,” or as Lincoln later put it, “a new nation.”

In order to get around these inconvenient facts, Lincoln said falsely that the Union was older than the Constitution, older even than the states. How could a union of things be older than the very things it was a union of? Isn’t that a bit like saying that a marriage is older than either spouse?

Well, said Lincoln, the Union had been formed while the future states were still colonies — then they declared their independence of Britain — but not of each other, mind you — then the Union was “further matured” in the Articles of Confederation — then it was matured still further in the Constitution; but at every stage, the states had had no existence outside the Union, so the Union was indissoluble. At least no state could withdraw without the consent of the rest of the Union. (This contradicted Lincoln’s own ringing affirmation of the right of secession during the Mexican War, but never mind. He came up with a fine and convenient distinction between a “revolutionary” and a “constitutional” right of secession.)

Oddly enough, the states of 1776 thought they were states, plural, not provinces of a sovereign “Union.” N.B.: They did not declare themselves a single “free and independent state,” which is what Lincoln (followed by Jaffa, of course) in essence said they were.

Let’s pause briefly on one point here. A state can secede from a confederation any time it wants to. It needs no justification beyond its own sovereignty. Lincoln, in denying that the states were sovereign, was denying that they were really states at all. All the rest is secondary — whether slavery was good or bad, whether it was endangered, whether the Southerners were acting like sore losers over the 1860 election, and so forth.

Now for the Articles of Confederation. As their name implies, they defined the Union as a confederation of the states, not as a sovereign power over the member states. In fact their second article says plainly: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence,” et cetera. Each state, if I understand these words correctly, “retains,” among other things, its “independence.” This would seem to imply that each state already enjoyed its independence — not only of Britain, but of the other states.

So the Articles of Confederation were a second Declaration of Independence. Even as the states were still fighting together to secure their independence of Britain, they asserted their independence of each other as well! They were loosely united in a confederation, or, as they also put it, “a firm league of friendship.” But they retained severally their “sovereignty, freedom, and independence,” which I interpret to mean their sovereignty, freedom, and independence.

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain recognized, and listed by name, the 13 “free, sovereign, and independent states.” Evidently the states were sticklers for acknowledgment of their separate statehood. They didn’t settle for recognition of “the United States” in the aggregate.

Note that the Constitution always speaks of the United States in the plural. There is a reason for that; it isn’t just a quaint detail of linguistic usage.

Perhaps a Straussian analysis will demonstrate that the “inner meaning” of these documents flatly contradicts their ostensible meaning. Meanwhile, we may be pardoned for taking them literally.

We may also note that President Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the Declaration, said, when some states talked of secession, that they should be permitted to go in peace.

The Constitution says nothing about secession, either way. But it doesn’t equate secession with “rebellion” or “insurrection,” as Lincoln did. It says the federal government may aid a state in suppressing “domestic violence” — if the state requests its help. It doesn’t suggest that the federal government may invade a state against its will for any reason.

How could Lincoln be so wrong? Well, he was a product of a later generation of rising nationalism, typified by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, that was out of touch with the Founders and the Framers of the Constitution. As a matter of fact, the longer I study Lincoln, the more I am convinced that he was simply ignorant of the greatest body of American political thought; I seriously doubt that he ever read even The Federalist Papers. If he did, he never assimilated their thinking about the problems of “confederation,” “consolidation,” “usurpation,” and the like. Jefferson Davis was steeped in these ideas and completely mastered them, as his memoirs show. Lincoln, however, couldn’t have carried on an intelligent conversation with Madison, Hamilton, or his hero Jefferson (whose Kentucky Resolutions he also seems ignorant of).

Jaffa may be surprised to learn that much of my critique of Lincoln, as I will present it in my book, King Lincoln, is drawn from the evidence of his own recent book, A New Birth of Freedom. He doesn’t realize how damning to Lincoln his own words are. For example, he says Lincoln thought that “the Union stood in the same relationship to a state as a state to a county.” Could Lincoln (or Jaffa) really hold such a naive view? The states were not formed by counties delegating powers to them; the counties had no sovereignty, but were mere subdivisions of the states. The states were not mere subdivisions, or inferior parts, of the Union. Lincoln’s simple hierarchical view of the Union is a far cry from federalism. Again we see Lincoln’s simplistic nationalist ideology.

Jaffa tries to make Lincoln sound like an avatar of the Founding Fathers, but about all he took from them was a set of snippets — “All men are created equal,” “consent of the governed,” et cetera — from which he wrung inferences they would have rejected. Jefferson in particular would have disowned Lincoln as a disciple.

Lincoln’s lack of learning was a serious defect, and it cost all Americans dearly. I’m not just defending the Confederacy; I think it was foolish to secede when it did, though it was fully within its rights. The point is that Lincoln’s war deprived all the states of their ultimate defense against federal tyranny and usurpation. Since 1865 the federal government has had little to fear from the states, and it has steadily usurped their reserved powers without much opposition and with total impunity.

To my mind, the most egregious case was the U.S. Supreme Court’s wholly arbitrary 1973 ruling that the states could not constitutionally protect unborn children from violent death by abortion. This was not only morally outrageous, but constitutionally absurd. But by then the states were helpless. Lincoln made that possible.

When Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to invade the South after Fort Sumter fell, several governors refused to comply, calling his military assault on their sister states “illegal,” “unconstitutional,” and even “revolutionary.” This last term is significant, because modern liberals who adore Lincoln — James McPherson, Garry Wills, and George Fletcher, for example — credit him with achieving a “revolution” in securing federal supremacy over the states. This amounts to an admission that it was Jefferson Davis, not Lincoln, who was fighting to “preserve the Constitution.”

Lincoln would never concede this, but he doesn’t have to: his fans do it for him. They applaud him for helping bring about the centralized, consolidated, monolithic — or, as they would say, “progressive” — government the Constitution was designed to prevent. Not only open leftists but “neoconservatives” adore Lincoln too.

Jaffa says I remind him of die-hard Confederates and Jim Crow politicians defenders when I say that Lincoln “launched a bloody war against the South, violating the Constitution he’d sworn to uphold.” Well, I can’t help it if I remind Jaffa of such folks, any more than he can help it if he reminds me of a desperate Trotskyite defending “true” Communism against Stalin’s “betrayal.” The carnage of the Civil War (620,000 deaths) was wildly disproportionate to that of Fort Sumter (one horse was killed).

“Who fired on Fort Sumter?” Jaffa demands, as if who fired the first shot had anything whatever to do with the merits of secession. If secession was a right, the South had a just claim on Sumter; if not, not. Had Lincoln ordered the first shot, no doubt Jaffa would be justifying it.

But the question of the first shot is of some interest. Lincoln wanted a war. But as a master of public relations, he didn’t want to fire the first shot, because he knew that in the minds of ordinary people, constitutional abstractions carry little weight; all they want to know is, “Who started it?” Firing the first shot makes you look like the aggressor in the eyes of the masses. Both sides understood this well enough, but Davis committed a terrible mistake by letting Lincoln maneuver him into shooting first. Nobody was killed (except the aforementioned horse), but the North went mad with war fever.

For more than a month, Lincoln allowed his subordinates William Seward and Ward Lamon to assure the Confederates that Sumter would be peacefully evacuated soon, and the Confederates rightly felt betrayed when Lincoln sent provisions and reinforcements instead. The official line is that Lincoln didn’t know what Seward and Lamon were doing. But did he take responsibility for them? No. Did he discharge them for blundering the country into a gigantic civil war? No. Did he even reprimand them? No. He was quite happy with the result, as he privately told Orville Browning and Gustavus Fox.

So much for secession. Now for what Jaffa calls my “disingenuous” quotations from Lincoln on race. He says I must know better. He refers to his 1959 book Crisis of the House Divided, “a book Sobran once knew well, and once spoke of with great approval. In it I explained that Douglas’s strategy was to identify Lincoln with abolitionists, the most radical, and radically unpopular, of those in the antislavery coalition. Lincoln’s disavowal of abolitionism was absolutely necessary to his political survival in the climate of opinion of Illinois voters in the 1850’s. To have failed to make such disavowals would simply have disqualified him as a political leader of the antislavery cause. Sobran knows this, and his present use of these quotations is simply disingenuous.”

Not exactly. I’ve never read that book through, let alone praised it. I did praise a couple of Jaffa’s other books, but he ought at least to be more precise when he’s impeaching my honesty. In any case, Jaffa makes the same argument elsewhere, all over the place in fact, and I’ve always found it unconvincing — actually, I find it just a little bit disingenuous.

Lincoln didn’t just “disavow abolitionism” — he opposed Negro citizenship in the United States. Was this just an election-year ploy? Were his various anti-Negro statements, as Jaffa puts it in his new book, mere “concessions to the prejudices of his times”? If so, Lincoln certainly went far out of his way to create a false impression.

Lincoln always supported the fugitive slave laws, not only verbally, but actively. In 1847, as a lawyer, he represented a Kentucky slaveowner named Robert Matson who was trying to recover a whole family of fugitive slaves in Illinois.

In 1852, when he was out of politics and wasn’t courting votes, he eulogized Henry Clay for his promotion of colonization — encouraging free Negroes to return to “their native clime,” Africa. They were Africa’s “lost children,” and restoring them to their homeland would be a “glorious consummation” of the misfortune of slavery in America. If it could be accomplished, Lincoln thought it would be remembered as one of Clay’s greatest services “to his country and his kind.” Later he would settle for sending them to a tropical climate in the Western Hemisphere, always provided it was outside the United States.

Lincoln himself was an active member of the American Colonization Society. He often referred to the American Negro as “the African.” In his 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska act he again urged colonization, on grounds that Negroes could never be the “equals” of whites in America. In his 1857 speech against the Dred Scott decision he once more urged colonization as “the only perfect preventive of [racial] amalgamation,” which filled white people with “natural disgust”; the solution was “to transfer the African to his native clime.” He wasn’t seeking office yet. He simply believed what he said — that “God made us separate.”

During his 1858 debates with Douglas, Lincoln said nothing more in disparagement of the Negro than he had already said before, and often. He was slightly more explicit than usual about denying Negro citizenship; he had no objection to Illinois’s harsh black code, which forbade free Negroes to vote, hold public office, serve as jurors, or intermarry with whites. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. He repeatedly cited the “physical difference” between the races as sufficient reason why they could never live together on equal terms.

Far from being a campaign ploy, colonization was Lincoln’s passion, an idee fixe. He dragged it into speeches and conversations at odd times, as if it were an uncontrollable obsession. His admiring secretary John Hay thought he was a bit of a nut on the subject and was relieved when he finally stopped pursuing it. Usually Lincoln was a realist; but he ignored those who pointed out that American Negroes were being born faster than they could possibly be shipped abroad. “The enterprise is a difficult one,” he conceded; “but ‘where there is a will there is a way,’ and what colonization needs most is a hearty will.” To him it was not just a vague hope but a practical project.

As president, even as the Civil War raged, Lincoln made time to pursue colonization. He founded colonies for free Negroes in Panama (then still part of Colombia) and Haiti. In his 1862 state of the Union message he even proposed a constitutional amendment to promote colonization of “free colored persons” outside the United States. In his negotations with the border states, he suggested gradual, compensated emancipation, accompanied by colonization to South America. He pledged to pursue colonization in his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. He invited a delegation of free Negroes to the White House, where, citing the “physical difference” again, he exhorted them to lead their people in a mass migration to Panama, where they could support themselves by mining coal.

What an inspired idea — converting American Negroes into Panamanian coal miners! The Negroes must have thought he was crazy. But Lincoln was quite serious. He couldn’t drop the idea until his colonies fizzled out in mid1864.

Similarly, Jaffa can’t drop the idea that Abe Lincoln was on a lifelong “mission” — his word — to achieve Negro equality in America. If this Lincoln sometimes said and did things indicating he had other ideas for the Negro, well, that was all part of the Plan! He could only defeat bigotry by posing as a bigot himself, like an FBI agent infiltrating the Klan. Honest Abe couldn’t afford to be honest about race — or perhaps he was only pretending to be dishonest? If so, he overdid it. He left more evidence than even Harry Jaffa can explain away, and Harry Jaffa has devoted an arduous lifetime to explaining such things away.

I trust that by now it’s obvious to everyone but Jaffa that this Lincoln — his cherished crusader for equality — is a wholly imaginary being. The Mythic Lincoln, sent down to earth from heaven to vanquish not only slavery but racial prejudice and inequality, can’t long survive the publication of Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Bennett adduces a thousand facts that show why serious abolitionists derided Lincoln as “the Slave-Hound from Illinois”; I have cited only a few salient details.

Jaffa insinuates that anyone who quotes the same Lincolnian words quoted by the White Citizens’ Councils in days of yore must agree with the White Citizens’ Councils. He misses the rather obvious point that Lincoln agreed with the White Citizens’ Councils. Lincoln was an unabashed racial separatist. Why should liberals be allowed the privilege of claiming him?

Actually, Lincoln had a double purpose: to prevent the political separation of North and South, while achieving the permanent racial separation of whites and blacks. Just as the “nation” couldn’t go on being half-slave and half-free, neither could it survive half-white and half-black. Lincoln wanted a unified white America. This remained his ideal even when he gave up on colonization for the time being.

Lincoln wound up performing two of the most important acts of American history: waging a civil war and emancipating the slaves in the seceding states. Both acts were attended by accident, intrigue, and rich irony; but the Lincoln mythology stubbornly insists that they were part of a providential mission of which Lincoln was the fully conscious agent. Like Christ, he was put on earth to play the predestined role of redeemer; he pursued his redemptive mission single-mindedly all his life; when he didn’t seem to be pursuing it, he was only, out of necessity, fooling lesser men who were not yet prepared for the full blaze of his divine truth. He always remained, in his pure essence, uncompromised. If he sometimes said unseemly things about the very people he had been appointed to deliver from bondage, he didn’t really mean them. He couldn’t have meant them. And shame on those who say he did mean them.

This is the Mythic Lincoln; Harry Jaffa’s immaculate Lincoln, and the Lincoln of a good many other idolaters as well. In his prize-laden book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills dismisses Lincoln’s belittling remarks about Negroes as “accommodations to the prejudice of his time” and makes not a single mention of Lincoln’s desire to ship the dark people abroad.

The real Lincoln was a lesser, more complicated figure, even a tragic one, embarrassing to the mythology. And he knew himself: he recognized his dark reflection in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He would have had enough humor to laugh heartily at his hagiographers.

This is the man I will present in King Lincoln — not the incarnation of the American Idea, but an oddly concrete human being who, for some reason, never allowed his children to meet their grandfather. The Mythic Lincoln is open and universal, with nothing to hide: the real Lincoln was “secretive,” “reticent,” “shut-mouthed.” The Mythic Lincoln quoted Scripture and talked like the King James Bible: the real Lincoln could never bring himself to believe. The Mythic Lincoln detested cruelty and violence: the real Lincoln accepted 620,000 deaths, to “save” an ill-defined “Union.”

August 2001

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 

Copyright © 2001 by The Vere Company