Friday Philosophy

Dissecting Lincoln

Thomas DiLorenzo, the president of the Mises Institute, has already reviewed Paul C. Graham’s Nonsense on Stilts: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Imaginary Nation (Shotwell Publishing, 2024) in characteristically excellent fashion, but the book is so insightful that some further comments are warranted. It is clear that Graham has a philosophical turn of mind and is a master of linguistic analysis.

His skill is amply on display in his dissection of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered in March 1861. In that address, Lincoln endeavored to respond to the main arguments that secession was constitutional. Graham calls attention to a crucial point in the beginning of the passage in which Lincoln does this. He said: “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.”

What is the “universal law” to which Lincoln appeals? Lincoln’s argument is that a nation, by which he means a single sovereign body, cannot include provision for its own dissolution. “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. . . . no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”

Graham easily skewers this argument. Lincoln is assuming just what the states that seceded denied—that America is a sovereign nation:

Now, my dear reader, it may very well be the case that the fundamental law governing national governments is that they are perpetual, but the “Union” has a federal, not national form of government. Lincoln seemingly took it for granted that there was one American people with one form of government—a national one—and the states were like counties—not sovereign bodies that created the institution Lincoln is characterizing as national. It should go without saying that this was not the way the States saw each other or themselves when they ratified this second American Constitution. . . .

Note, again that the words “union” and “nation” are used interchangeably, as if they were one and the same thing. In the preceding statement he says that “the Union of these States is perpetual.” Now he switches to the word “nation,” saying that perpetuity is a fundamental characteristic of a “national government”—a rhetorical “bait and switch” maneuver. . . .

Presumably, because a national government is “indivisible,” we may assume it is a “government proper,” the implication being that the actions of the Southern States made the United States an improper form of government. Of course, it is easily perceived that this argument is circular, pretending to be an argument from definition, but it is really a form of equivocation or conflation of ideas by using two words with different meaning as if they were the same (and clearly they are not). (two instances of Graham’s spelling have been changed)

The “second American Constitution,” according to Graham, was an illegal overthrow of the Articles of Confederation, usefully reprinted in the book in full.

One might raise the following objection to Graham: You say, and document fully, that the United States was a compact between independent states—not a sovereign nation in Lincoln’s sense—but you don’t reject the notion of sovereignty altogether. In fact, you say that the states that joined in compact to establish the United States are sovereign. What is so great about that? Can’t these states also be oppressive?

Indeed they can, but it is clear both from the horrendous war unleashed by Lincoln against the Southern States down to our own times that the remedy for problems within the states does not lie with the chief agent of oppression, the central government.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln, quoting the Declaration of Independence, said that the United States was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Graham argues powerfully that Lincoln misread the Declaration. The primary thrust of that document is the “consent of the governed.” Because of gross violations by the British king and Parliament of the traditional rights and liberties of the colonies, which was stated in a long list of grievances, these colonies declared that they were now independent states.

Graham views with alarm the attempt to see America as a nation dedicated to a proposition:

Ought is a tricky word and leads us to the field of ethics or moral philosophy. Ought requires a metaphysical foundation—take your pick, but it needs at least one. Ought takes us away from any proposition demonstrably true or false and depends on a kind of political or philosophical faith. . . . It is for this reason that I hold to the position that even if we were a nation (which we are not), it is a bad idea for a nation, any nation, to dedicate themselves to a proposition, any proposition. Nothing good has ever come from such a thing and nothing ever will if history or human experience, born out of time and sifted out over multiple generations, is to be our guide. (emphasis in original)

I take Graham to be saying, “Forget about the gossamer notion of universal ethical ‘oughts.’ Let’s stick with solid traditions, established through long experience, and among these historical traditions is government by consent.” I venture to suggest that Graham has not escaped the realm of “ought.” Isn’t he committed to holding that the colonies acted in a morally proper way in seceding—that they acted as they ought to, or at least acted as they were morally permitted to do? How does Graham get from “is” to “ought,” and if he denies that such a transition is needed, isn’t that also a “metaphysical” claim?

Graham’s position, fortunately, can be vindicated. Secession is a fundamental moral right. As Ludwig von Mises eloquently puts it:

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil international wars. . .

The right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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