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In Re Jack Kemp v. Joe Sobran on Lincoln

By: Harry V. Jaffa
July 30, 2001

There has been an uncivil war between Joe Sobran and Jack Kemp on the question of the character of Abraham Lincoln as man and statesman. In many recent utterances Sobran has repeated things Lincoln said, mainly in the 1850's, which are presumed to show Lincoln as less of an advocate of the rights of black people than he is commonly supposed to be. Many of these quotes were used by the White Citizens Councils in the 1950's in their rebellion against the Supreme Court's 1954 decision declaring racially segregated schools to be unconstitutional. Most common among these was Lincoln's repeated assertion in his 1858 campaign against Douglas that "I am not now, and never have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, or of permitting them to marry with white people." Kemp has accused Sobran of character assassination. Sobran replies that the quotations are authentic and therefore honest indications of Lincoln's real character.

Many of the passages Sobran cites, including the one quoted above, were subjected to exhaustive analysis in my 1959 book Crisis of the House Divided:

An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 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.

Lincoln believed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He believed that all men are created equal, and that because of this, the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. Elections in a free society are for the purpose of filling offices by and with the consent of the governed. But what if the governed only imperfectly recognize the equal rights which are the title deeds to their own authority? The Preamble of the Constitution speaks of forming "a more perfect Union." In nothing was greater perfection to be sought than in having the American people understand that the rights for whose vindication they fought in the American Revolution were rights they shared with all men everywhere—that there were no "inferior races." It was Lincoln's mission to carry this work of greater perfection forward to "a new birth of freedom."

Lincoln had to steer a middle path between those, like the abolitionists, who would ignore constitutional restraints in seeking to abolish slavery, and those, like Sobran's Confederate friends, who saw no reason at all to abolish slavery. Lincoln early resolved that measures taken against slavery would be taken only by constitutional means, by the consent of the American people. He had before him a recent example—that of Napoleon—who pursued the ends of equality by the means of tyranny. Lincoln saw no gain in freeing the slaves by enslaving the free. It was a white public—North no less than South—that was overwhelmingly prejudiced against black people, that he had to persuade. He had to persuade them that their own rights were in jeopardy if they failed to recognize the equal rights of people of another color. By careful analysis, both in Crisis and in my recent book, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, I believe I have proved that there is no reason to think that Lincoln shared the prejudices of those he would persuade.

Sobran makes much of Lincoln's commitment to colonization. This is also a subject discussed at some length in Crisis, and again Sobran ignores what he knows I have written about it. He might have reflected that an opinion shared by men of the stature of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Clay, and Lincoln might have had something to recommend it that had escaped Sobran's notice. In fact, given the contempt with which abolitionists were held by the great majority of the white public, colonization was for long the only means by which "mainstream" politicians could safely advocate emancipation. To understand this however requires some historical imagination—putting oneself in the place of someone in an earlier age—something Sobran seems unable to do.

The head and front of Sobran's indictment of Lincoln is that he "launched a bloody war against the South, violating the Constitution he'd sworn to uphold." This is the kind of wild and mindless assertion that those of us in this business associate with unreconstructed Confederates, and old line politicians of the Jim Crow South. Who fired on Fort Sumter? Sobran might as well blame Lincoln for Pearl Harbor. The Constitution that Lincoln had sworn to uphold enjoined him to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. How could he execute the laws in states that claimed to have seceded, and which had seized all the federal property within their boundaries?

The heart of the defense of the Confederate South lies in the claim that secession was a lawful act under the Constitution itself. This question—of the lawfulness of secession—embodies in itself the entire crisis of the Union. I believe that I have, in A New Birth, given it the most thorough analysis ever attempted. I cannot reproduce that analysis here in all its complexity. Simply stated however, the idea of secession means that those who have lost an election can break up the government rather than abide by its results. If minorities can set aside the result of an election, then there is no point in having elections at all. Lincoln's defense of the Union was therefore a defense of the principle of constitutional majority rule, a principle not recognized anywhere else in the world of that time. Unless the defense of that principle succeeded here, it is not likely that it would ever have succeeded elsewhere. That is what Lincoln meant at Gettysburg when he said that the Civil War was a test whether popular government would perish from the earth.

The Southerners attempted to defend secession by claiming that they had the same lawful right to de-ratify the Constitution as they had to ratify it. Secession, they said, was neither more nor less than de-ratification. The Union under the Constitution was a voluntary contractual agreement among the states. They had the same contractual right, they said, to leave the Union as to join it. This however is to misconstrue the nature of contracts. Consider: marriage is a voluntary agreement, or contract, between a man and a woman. Prior to the marriage, each is free to contract alliances with other parties. After marriage, they are entitled to no such freedom. To say that a partner in marriage can end the union, and co-habit with another partner, is in effect to deny that there ever was a marriage at all. Bear in mind that a seceded state claimed the right to enter into alliances with foreign powers. Under the law of contracts, obligations freely undertaken can never be disavowed unilaterally. That the Constitution would by granting a right of secession provide for its own demise—assisted suicide so to speak—is absurd.

In some of his writings, Sobran has asserted that three of the original thirteen states, in their instruments of ratification, reserved the right to secede from the Union. But Sobran has misread those documents. What the states reserved was the right of revolution, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. But that is a natural right, under the laws of nature, and not a constitutional right. The seceders were careful not to appeal to the right of revolution, since that would be a right to which their slaves might appeal not less than themselves.

It is characteristic of latter day defenders of the Confederate cause that they studiously ignore the historical record of the actual course of events leading up to Fort Sumter. The decisive act of secession occurred before Lincoln's election in April of 1860. It was the secession of the seven states of the Deep South from the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. The Convention had a large majority—but not the two-thirds required for nomination—committed to the nomination of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. But seven states—the same that would secede before Lincoln's inauguration—demanded that the party platform include a slave code for the territories. This was a demand for federal police protection for any slave owner who went into any federal territory with his slaves, if the territorial government failed to provide that protection. This meant that henceforth every federal territory would be a slave territory, and every state formed from those territories would become a slave state. This would mean a repudiation of Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty, by which the people of each territory would decide for themselves whether to become free or slave. It would also mean the indefinite extension of slavery. No politician who countenanced such a demand could be elected dog-catcher in any free state, least of all the man who had made popular sovereignty the keystone of his career.

The Southerners who were implacable in making this demand illustrate as well as anything in history the saying that whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. By splitting the Democratic Party they virtually assured the election of Lincoln. Douglas, as the candidate of a united Democratic Party, would almost certainly have been elected—particularly because powerful elements in the Republican Party held him in high regard. Just as Lincoln would raid the Democratic Party of its free-soil element, so Douglas could have raided the Republican Party for those who saw popular sovereignty as a satisfactory compromise of the slavery question. What is ironical is that Douglas, a rampant expansionist, would have given the radical Southerners just about everything they wanted. The acquisition of Cuba was in the platform of both Democratic parties in 1860. Further acquisitions throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America would have followed—all eventually being turned into slave states. The one thing that it was politically impossible for Douglas to do was endorse the demand for federal slave codes. It is instructive that this demand, made in the name of state rights, would have resulted in the greatest expansion of federal governmental power before the New Deal. But it was the secession of the Deep South, not from Lincoln and the Republicans, but from Stephen A. Douglas, that made the Civil War virtually inevitable—and brought about the abolition of slavery.

Harry V. Jaffa

July 30, 2001